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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)