The Ottumwa Courier

October 3, 2012

A sweet life: Coca-Cola family business lives on through memories, collectibles

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Coca-Cola courses through the Taylor family’s veins.

At the History Walk downtown Saturday night, Tom Konrad, distribution supervisor of Coca-Cola in Ottumwa, will portray Phil Taylor Sr., who owned and managed the company from 1956 to 1977.

Phil Taylor Jr. is the son of Taylor Sr. and the grandson of Robert Taylor, who originally owned the company.

“I grew up in it, working, since I was 9 or 10,” Taylor Jr. said. “Everybody knew him [Taylor Sr.]. He’d be up at 6:30 and gone and he would get home late at night. We went to about every event there was. It was exciting. It was hard work.”

From big company picnics at Wildwood Park to the airpower show at the airport to motorcycle races behind Lentner Motorcycle Company, Taylor Jr. and his sister doled out the ice-cold drink to thousands at concession stands.

“The Wapello County Fair was a huge deal,” Taylor Jr. said. “That was the busiest week of the summer for my dad. He’d be practically living down there. He’d be down there until midnight or 1 a.m.”

An 11-year-old Taylor Jr. would help out by taking cases of Coke into the grandstand and balancing the heavy case with his bottle opener since pull-tabs had not been invented yet.

“He might be presiding over Rotary at noon as president and then if somebody wasn’t here he’d be back loading trucks with us,” Taylor Jr. said. “He’d take his tie off, his jacket off and he’d go back and load trucks. He was just everywhere. Then back at night he’d be out over at a Walsh High School basketball game in the concessions selling Coke.”

All with a big smile, added Eileen Day, Main Street Ottumwa promotions committee member.

“Dad was a hands-on owner and manager, that’s for sure,” Taylor Jr. said. “No matter what the community event was where they had Coke, he was there.”

In the 1950s, Taylor Sr. had said Ottumwa’s plant serviced 120 small neighborhood markets in the city.

When the Coke plant resided on West Second Street, children would line the windows, watching as bottles were filled with the sweet drink.

“I remember as a child standing watching the bottles being filled,” Day said.

Taylor Sr. retired in 1977, and Ottumwans wondered how the outgoing, hardworking man would transition from 100 mph to a standstill.

“When he retired, everybody wondered what would happen to him, what he would do, how he would handle retirement,” Taylor Jr. said. “He was one of those guys that was on all the time, working, working, working. But we were really surprised. He just shifted gears in life, became very active in the community.

“It was good for him to retire and get out of it. He was a workaholic. It was his whole life.”

During retirement, Taylor Sr. would sell his Coke collectibles at antique and flea markets in What Cheer and Valley Junction and meet people along the way.

“He loved talking to people,” Taylor Jr. said. “He’d talk your ear off and sell a few bottle caps. He just loved every minute of it.”

Today, Konrad arrives at the center at 4:30 every morning. Pallets start hitting the docks around 2:30 a.m., and the center usually ships them out in trucks at around 8 a.m.

“We distribute almost 1 million cases per year,” Konrad said. “Each day is so different. Right now we’re in the lull between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Holidays, of course, are the peaks.”

Ottumwa’s center distributes to all of southeast Iowa, reaching from Pella and Knoxville to Mount Pleasant, as well as northeast Missouri, from Memphis to Lancaster.

Bottling in Ottumwa stopped in the early 1980s after Konrad had taken over. They now distribute 6.5-ounce and 8-ounce glass bottles, as well as the 355 ml bottle from Mexico.

Today, the Ottumwa center distributes Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Barq’s Root Beer and Fanta, along with each drink’s respective spin-offs. They also distribute Minute Maid juices, Dasani water, Mendota Springs sparkling water and power drinks.

When Taylor Jr. was a boy, he said the plant bottled Coke, Sprite, Tab, Fresca and Sun-Rise. And a bottle was 10 to 15 cents back then, he said.

“But you remembered where the nickel or 6-cent machines were,” Taylor Jr. said, and Konrad and Day agreed. “If they were in church basements or gas stations, you went there.”

While Taylor Jr. switched to Diet Coke years ago, he said he rarely drinks it now, unlike his mother, Ruthanne Taylor.

“My mother still drinks it religiously, and so does my uncle,” Taylor Jr. said. “Boy, I keep their fridges stocked with the ‘real’ Coke — no Diet Coke. It’s gotta be the real Coke. They would not think of ever drinking Diet Coke or a different flavor. We had to hide the Diet Coke when Dad was alive.”

Taylor Sr. still preached Coca-Cola to anyone who would listen up until his death in 2004.

“It was in his blood,” Taylor Jr. said. “He would love to be here talking about it.”

History of Ottumwa’s Coca-Cola plant

Robert Taylor came to Ottumwa in 1926 to run the plant. The rest of the Taylors moved to Ottumwa from Tennessee in 1928 when Taylor Sr. was 11 years old.

Coca-Cola was first bottled in Ottumwa in 1911 in a small building on Pershing Avenue, which sat next to an ice and cold storage building on Cass Street.

The bottling plant stood at 637 W. Second St. for 10 years before moving to an automobile garage at 120 W. Second St. in 1937.

After Robert Taylor died unexpectedly in 1956, Taylor Sr. became the general manager when he was 40 years old.

In 1969, urban renewal took the block where the plant was located, moving operations in 1971 to its current location at 632 Gateway Drive.

In 1977, Taylor Sr. retired and sold the company to Renwar and Southern Illinois Corporation, the same year that Taylor Jr. moved to California, where he stayed until moving back to Ottumwa in 1991.

Tom Konrad has served as the distribution supervisor since 1978.

Second Annual History Walk

5-7 p.m. Saturday

Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the MSO office, Hotel Ottumwa or North and South Hy-Vee.

The historic tour of downtown Ottumwa will include volunteers in character, telling stories at each landmark.

The Wapello County Historical Museum will be open 4-7 p.m. Saturday, offering “two for the price of one” tickets.