Few corporate brands are as recognizable as Coca-Cola. The soda has been around for over 130 years, and for much of that time it was bottled right here in the Northwoods.
In 1886, when John Pemberton developed the syrup that became Coca-Cola, he did it with the intent of producing a medicinal tonic that would relieve numerous ailments. He quickly discovered that when mixed with carbonated water, it made a refreshing beverage and started selling it as a fountain drink. Pemberton’s health was not good, so in 1888 he sold controlling interest in his beverage to Asa Candler of Atlanta.
The product proved immensely popular but was available only as a fountain beverage. In 1899, Joseph Whitehead and Benjamin Thomas traveled to Atlanta to negotiate permission to bottle Coca-Cola. They struck a deal that gave them rights to a geographic area, and afterward Coca-Cola began franchising its product to independent bottlers across the nation.
In Rhinelander’s earliest years, the Lindahl and Larson Bottlers had been supplying local saloons across the Northwoods. However, in 1891 Arthur Taylor and his wife Mary moved to Rhinelander from Marinette and purchased the plant, which they renamed the Rhinelander Bottling Works. They continued manufacturing locally produced soft drinks and distributing them to towns throughout the Northwoods. Deliveries were made by means of horse and wagon, a sleigh in the winter, and the railroad when possible.
In 1905 the Rhinelander Bottling Works struck a deal with the Coca-Cola Company to bottle and distribute Coca-Cola in a six-county area in the Northwoods. Syrup was delivered to the bottler from the company. The bottler then mixed one ounce of syrup with seven ounces of carbonated water. At a fountain this was done in front of the customer, but in the earliest years of bottling it was mixed in a straight-sided bottle and sealed with what is known as a Hutchinson Stopper. The earliest bottles sold in the Northwoods were of this type. More effective bottle caps, or crowns, began to replace the Hutchinson Stopper as bottled Coca-Cola grew in popularity.
Coca-Cola’s distinctive contour bottle was invented in 1916, and as that feature of the product was being introduced the Rhinelander Bottling Works changed its name to the Taylor Beverage and Candy Company. While prohibition was bad for some businesses in the Northwoods, it was a boom time for the Taylor family as sales of Coca-Cola skyrocketed. Sales of candy and flavored soft drinks were good, but Coca-Cola was number one above everything else. This was acknowledged in 1939 when the Taylor family changed the business name to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
By 1956, the Rhinelander Coca-Cola Bottling Company had outlasted all others and was the oldest independent Coca-Cola bottler in the state of Wisconsin. The bottling plant was a local area highlight, and group tours of the operation continued to be popular right into the 1960s.
But all good things must end. In the 1970s and 1980s, small bottlers began merging into regional distributors. The Taylor family, who had owned the bottling works since 1891, decided to sell out in 1986. Today, the Rhinelander operation is only a distribution warehouse. It is part of Great Lakes Coca-Cola Bottling and is owned by Reyes Holdings.