Days Gone By - stories from the past

Did you know that the success of Coca-Cola in Birmingham is owed to a mule?

Beginning with one employee, a mule, and a foot-powered bottling machine, Crawford Johnson Sr. purchased the exclusive franchise rights, in 1902, to bottle and distribute Coca-Cola in Birmingham, Alabama.


Success is owed to a mule

Today, Coca-Cola Bottling Company United, Inc. produces and distributes over 400 Coca-Cola products across six states. The company employs nearly 3,000 people in 20 sales centers and 3 production facilities.

Much of Crawford Johnson’s success is owed to Bird, a mule. The following story was reported in Birmingham Coca-Cola’s 75th Anniversary Newspaper from Climbing the Branches of My Family Tree. Charlie Fleming, mentioned in the story as original owner of the mule, was an ancestor. coca=cola birmingham

Coca-Cola’s first retired employee was mule

When I joined the Coca-Cola Bottling Company here in Birmingham in 1919 as garage superintendent, I found that my job would be more than just taking care of our small fleet of trucks.

Because stabled at one end of the garage, with no gate on the stall, was the company’s first retired employe – a mule. Named Bird.

Bird had been retired about four years earlier when the last of the mule wagons had been given up for trucks. I soon learned that Bird was a queen. And she knew it.

She had complete freedom of our lot, and during the daylight hours when the street gate was open she was permitted to roam all over Southside. The tracks of streetcars and railroads were her self-imposed boundaries.

Crawford Johnson, sr

Crawford Johnson, Sr.

Queen got the business started

There was a good reason for Bird being queen. In a sense, she was responsible for getting the business started. When Mr. Crawford Johnson was about to begin bottling in March, 1902, he had just about run out of funds. So he went down to see Charlie Flemming at Flemming Transfer and asked Mr. Charlie if he could borrow a mule and wagon – long enough to help him get started.

Mr. Charlie let him pick out one, and mule he picked was small, mouse-colored Bird.

Fancy harness and bright red paint

It was rough going those first few months, until Mr. Charlie suggested to Mr. Johnson that he put some fancy harness on the mule and a new coat of bright red paint on the wagon. The idea, said Mr. Charlie, was to drive that wagon “hell-bent for election” through town so people would think he was selling so much of this new drink called Coca-Cola that he just couldn’t meet the demand.

It worked.

Folks who weren’t already handing Coca-Cola began selling it. Bird and her fine new harness and that red wagon became a familiar sight on the streets of Birmingham. And nine months after he first opened, Mr. Johnson’s “loan” of Bird ended. He bought her and the wagon.cocacola bottle

Bird loved anything green

Bird loved anything green. The first winter after I started at the company. Mrs. Johnson sent some of her fine plants (which she was afraid would be killed by the cold” down to be stored. The only warm place available was in the garage.

And sure enough, the plants didn’t freeze. Actually, they didn’t have a chance to. Bird ate everything but the roots.

Later, I found out why Bird was so reluctant to cross any kind of tracks. During the latter part of her working days, it seems, she took a nasty fall while pulling a loaded wagon over some icy streetcar tracks and got so tangled in her harness that she had to be cut out of it and lifted to her feet with a block and tackle. From that day on, she never crossed any tracks of her own accord.

Self-appointed supervisor

Bird was a self-appointed supervisor around the lot. She kept her gray nose in everybody’s business while they were trying to load or unload trucks – or while I was trying to repair one.

One afternoon she planted herself squarely in front of the water spigot while one of the salesmen was trying to get water for his truck. After a lot of oral persuasion, which was absolutely futile, the salesman picked up a big two-by-four and was about to let Bird have it in the rear end.

Well-respected lady

Mr. Johnson happened to be looking out the window just then, and when he was Walter James about to whack Bird, he yelled down, “Walter, if you want to hit somebody, you come up here and hit me!”

Yes, Bird was a well-respected lady.

By 1922, the business activity on the back lot had picked up to such a pace that Mr. Johnson was afraid Bird would be hit by one of the trucks. He decided to pasture her at Mr. Charlie’s farm in Oxmoor.

1931 Ford Truck Birmingham Bottling

coca-cola_truck_ford_1931 birmingham

Bird didn’t appreciate this a bit. Every time she could find a hole in Mr. Charlie’s fence, she’d pay us a visit at the plant.

In the spring of 1924, Bird died. She’s buried in Oxmoor.” (by L.C. Barrow)

Biographies of Notable and Not-so-Notable  Alabama Pioneers Volume I

 

 

About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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6 comments

  1. Warm story. Interesting and humorous look back. Loved this recollection of how Mr. Johnson respected a hardworking and loyal employee. There is a lesson here.

  2. Donald Wheeles

    That would have been a great story if it had been the mule. It would have been a first. Mules are sterile.

  3. Dee Anderson-Smith

    What is Ashland Al.history?

  4. I enjoyed the story about Bird the mule.

  5. Michael Cummings

    Wonder if his name was Ruth

  6. Mr Johnson did respect a hardworking and loyal employee. Too bad it is not the same today. Loyatilty only goes one way now. After 34 years David Gulledge fired me because another manager Walter Body didn’t do his job and I was blamed for it. That would not have happened if Crawford Johnson was still alive.

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