Asa Candler, who bought the original “medicinal” formula of pharmacist John Pemberton and turned it into soda giant Coca-Cola Co., is a native Villa Rican. Though the new exhibit won’t necessarily focus on Candler — a future exhibit will likely highlight the Candler family’s influence on Georgia — the new exhibit will portray the Villa Rica Electric Light and Power Co. as it once was when it was bottling Coca-Cola and a variety of other drinks in addition to its work on the power grid.
“We’re very pleased to be able to bring more of Villa Rica’s history to our museum patrons,” museum Director Carla Smothers said.
The Villa Rica Electric Light and Power Company provided direct current electricity to the local area beginning in 1901. In 1903 it began bottling Coca-Cola and other drinks while also selling block ice. The plant was owned by WB Powell and run by his son. Though Candler wasn’t directly involved in the plant, he reportedly provided the Coca-Cola syrup for mixing the drink.
Besides Coca-Cola, the local bottling company bottled Orange Crush, mineral water, distilled water and soda water.
The new exhibit is nearly an exact replica of a photograph taken in 1904 at the local bottling plant, including original pieces of equipment that can be seen in the photograph that were secured recently from a bottling company founded in 1901 in Elizabethtown, Ky., that had been turned into a Coca-Cola memorabilia museum before closing for good.
Besides the bottles themselves and about 40 wooden Coca-Cola crates, the original equipment that will be on display in the exhibit includes a capper/filler machine, a machine that mixes and makes the carbonated water, a machine that sterilizes the bottle, and a machine that fills the seltzer bottles. A bottle cleaner that looks vintage was also built for the exhibit.
Other items shown in the picture have also been found or constructed, including barrels, crock pots and possibly an old uniform similar to what would have been worn by the workers.
“We’re trying to duplicate this picture,” said Carl Lewis, the museum’s historic resources coordinator, referring to the black-and-white photograph being used as a project blueprint.
The exhibit is a brick room — using the bricks from the original plant that were salvaged when the it was torn down to build The Mill amphitheater in downtown — and some of the original hardwood floors from the plant.
The Pine Mountain Gold Museum is home to the largest known collection of glass Villa Rica Electric Light and Power Company bottles in the world. The bottles — considered the “holy grail” for bottle collectors because of their rarity and their ties to Candler’s hometown — were found buried near the original site of the bottling plant while city crews were building The Mill in 2007.
“If it hadn’t been for us digging all those Coke bottles up we never would have been able to have this display because we’re going to utilize hundreds and hundreds of Coke bottles to show every stage of the process just like it was back then,” Lewis said. “When I say we’ve got the world’s largest collection, I mean we’ve got them running out of our ears.”
Some of these rare bottles have been on display since the museum opened in 2008, but officials have been working since that time to come up with a way to display the legacy of the plant itself. The plant officially closed in 1923.
“Hopefully, this exhibit will mean something to people,” Lewis said.