Coca-Cola is undeniably one of our country’s most iconic products. The white script on a red background is recognized around the world.
What most people don’t know, however, is that an industrious Vicksburg candy merchant, Joseph A. Biedenharn, established the company’s first bottling plant in Mississippi. A century later, the original Biedenharn candy store houses a comprehensive museum of all things Coca-Cola.
“Joe Biedenharn had three candy stores in Vicksburg in the late 1800s, and those stores had soda fountains,” says Nancy Bell, director of the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation. “People came into the store more and more to drink the Coca-Cola because it was such a different flavor compared to others of the day – strawberry, sarsaparilla, peach, grape, etc.”
Biedenharn, who was already bottling his own strawberry soda, began bottling Coca-Cola, selling it in his store and delivering it to rural areas. The demand quickly grew, and in 1894, he sent a case to the company’s headquarters in Atlanta to ask for permission to continue to bottle and sell their product.
“Atlanta said, ‘Yeah, you can bottle it if you want to,’” Bell says. “Essentially what they said was, ‘So what, it’s not going to amount to anything, but if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine.’”
And the rest is history.
Today, 125 years later, Biedenharn’s bottling empire – which at one time expanded into Texas and Louisiana – is a delicious memory. But the original candy store is now a delightful museum dedicated to the vast memorabilia and history of Coca-Cola and the incredible marketing power of the brand.
Established in 1979, the museum was a collaboration between the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation and the Biedenharn family, who saw the importance of preserving and interpreting a part of Vicksburg’s history. While the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta is housed in a newer building, Vicksburg utilized and preserved the historic buildings that were part of the company’s grassroots success.
Among the rare items in the collection is one of the first Coca-Cola syrup dispensers. These were large, ornate ceramic containers designed to dispense syrup while being an attractive work of art on a store’s countertop.
“Soda fountains were pretty beautiful, so it was meant to be eye-catching,” Bell says.
The museum also has an extensive collection of signage and advertising with the distinctive logo on everything from glasses, trays and posters to clocks, cameras and school supplies.
“In the war years of the 1940s, especially, it was feel-good advertising,” Bell says. “It was all about family, home and hearth.”
The Santa Claus campaign, initiated in 1931, was designed to link Coca-Cola with Christmas and remains one of the most recognizable advertisements today.
The museum welcomes approximately 22,000 visitors a year and features an authentically restored candy store and soda fountain, offering ice cream, fountain Cokes, Coke floats and a wide selection of Coca-Cola souvenirs.
“The first pieces of memorabilia included in the museum were items the Biedenharn family had collected and a large collection from a house in Holly Springs obtained in 1985,” Bell says.
Donations also came from the people of Vicksburg.
“Over the past few years, we had two different families who were downsizing, and they didn’t want to sell their personal collections,” she says. “They wanted their collection to go somewhere because they had loved it, and they wanted it to go where someone else would love it.”
Museum visitors are also a source of collectables for the museum.
“We have tourists that come in and say, ‘You don’t have such-and-such, but I do, I don’t need it anymore,’ and they donate it to us. We’ve gotten bottles from as far away as Paris, and all over the United States,” Bell says.
Coca-Cola memorabilia remains a favorite collectible due to its affordability and accessibility.
“It’s not an expensive thing to collect unless you really get into the more historical or antique items,” she says.
It also has a sense of timelessness.
“It’s so nostalgic,” Bell says. “When people come through the museum, they’ll say ‘Oh my gosh, I remember this, and this, and this.’ It’s a part of your life.”
Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum
Location: 1107 Washington St., Vicksburg
Phone: (601) 638-6514
Open seven days a week, year round.