Please welcome guest author Lauren C. Steele. Steele, who is Sr. VP of Coca-Cola Consolidated, grew up in Auburn, AL. He worked as press secretary for a US Senator before starting his 32-year career in the Coca-Cola system. He and his wife live in Charlotte, NC and have two grown children and one grandchild. He has a passion for both Coca-Cola memorabilia and small town America.
Times Square is known as the ‘Crossroads of the World’ and indeed tens of millions of people from around the globe visit each year—and by doing so they get a first-hand look at the most famous sign in the world—the Times Square Coca-Cola Spectacular.
But long before this iconic New York landmark first debuted in 1920, thousands of Coca-Cola wall murals decorated the fronts and sides of buildings in the downtowns of American cities, big and small—towns like Hinton, WV and hundreds of others throughout Appalachia and the rural South.
The very first Coca-Cola wall mural is believed to have been painted on the side of a drug store in Cartersville, GA in 1894. Back then, Coca-Cola was brand new and unknown, so these early advertisements were used to introduce the drink that would one day become the world’s best-selling beverage and the most recognized and beloved brand in the world.
Shortly after marketing genius Asa Candler bought the little known beverage in 1891, he commissioned sign painters to fan out across the country to extol the virtues of the fledgling drink. “Delicious and Refreshing’, ‘Relieves Fatigue & Exhaustion’, The Pause That Refreshes’, ‘Work Refreshed’, ‘You Can Trust Its Quality’, and ‘Take Some Home Today’ were among the many early Coca-Cola advertising tag lines.
By 1910, a quarter of The Coca-Cola Company’s advertising budget was dedicated to wall murals with seemingly every town and crossroads having its own Coca-Cola sign painted on the side of a building. We believe as many as 16,000 wall murals were painted by the Company and its many local bottlers. Candler once famously boasted that a motion picture couldn’t be made anywhere in America without capturing the image of a Coca-Cola wall mural advertisement.
But over the decades most of the once-gleaming signs faded and many became almost unrecognizable. Others were destroyed or painted over. Sadly the dilapidated condition of many of these ‘ghost signs’ mirrored the circumstances of the downtowns where they were located. Many once-thriving, charming downtowns became virtual ghost towns as young people moved to cities and businesses abandoned city centers for the by-pass and the suburbs.
At Coca-Cola Consolidated, we recognize that these ghost signs are an important part of Coca-Cola’s history. But more importantly, the faded wall murals are part of the history of each of the towns where they exist; often treasured landmarks and nostalgic connections to the past. But it took the prodding of Concord, NC Mayor Scott Padgett to convince us we needed to play an active role in preserving this important part of our company’s heritage.
Concord had a Coca-Cola mural at its main downtown intersection which dated back to the 1960s, but it was badly faded and largely covered by a metal structure. As part of the city’s downtown revitalization efforts, Mayor Padgett wanted to uncover and repaint the iconic sign—and he convinced us to repair the building and refurbish the sign.
We turned to a bona fide expert for help, Andy Thompson, who had painted hundreds of Coca-Cola signs for our company over a 50-year career. He did a wonderful job restoring the masterpiece to its former glory.
Brides now pose in front of the Concord sign, and it has been prominently featured in television advertising for several local businesses and is once again a landmark in now-vibrant downtown Concord.
Local media coverage caught the attention of a group of young men in nearby Salisbury, NC, who had a passion for their hometown and were working to revitalize that community’s downtown. Creating a link between one of the earliest forms of media and one of the newest, these young people launched a Facebook campaign to promote restoring ghost signs in Salisbury. Coca-Cola Consolidated joined in and refurbished two badly faded Coca-Cola ghost signs.
Charlotte-based Coca-Cola Consolidated is the largest independent Coca-Cola bottler in the US, and we do business in 11 states stretching from Mississippi to West Virginia. We asked our family of 6,000 employees to help us identify ghost signs in the communities we have served since our company was founded in 1902. We discovered lots of Coca-Cola ghost signs and have partnered with elected officials and community leaders in a growing number of communities to restore these beloved wall murals. The list includes two signs in North Wilkesboro, NC; two ghost signs in Mebane, NC; a massive wall mural in Hendersonville, NC; and several signs in Roanoke, VA among others.
To celebrate each sign repainting, we have held community ribbon-cutting events. The outpouring of support has been truly humbling. Large crowds have come to each event, with old-timers sharing their stories of what the sign meant to the town before it faded into an almost unrecognizable ghost sign. We have learned that these signs are much more than an advertisement painted on a wall. They are an important part of the community. We are very glad that the refurbishing of these ghost signs often serves as a kick-start for downtown revitalization efforts.
And we have good news for those who share our love of Coca-Cola wall murals: the fine art of wall mural painting is alive and well more than 120 years after the first wall sign was painted. One very talented artist, Jack Fralin, from Roanoke, VA, has just this year painted several Coca-Cola ghost signs.
Recently, Coca-Cola Consolidated held three community ribbon-cutting celebrations in Virginia and West Virginia, and each was special in many ways. In Rocky Mount, VA, the refurbished sign is located on our old bottling facility and the ghost sign dated back to 1929.
The building now houses a brand new restaurant, the Bootlegger Café, and more than 200 people came out to celebrate the new sign, eat great food from the new restaurant, and order a delicious ice-cold Coca-Cola in an iconic glass bottle. Just up the road in Ronceverte, WV, community leaders and former Coca-Cola employees turned out to celebrate the repainting of a 1920s mural on a former Coke plant that is now the town’s recycling center.
But the largest Coca-Cola mural we have refurbished to date was unveiled in Hinton, WV. The 100 year old mural—originally painted in 1914—is a whopping 17 feet high and more than 60 feet wide and is part of a major revitalization effort in downtown Hinton. At the turn of the 20th Century, Hinton was a boomtown, with a downtown featuring high-rise buildings, two large hotels, restaurants, bars and a hospital. Built as a railroad town at the junction of the New, Greenbrier and Bluestone Rivers, Hinton has suffered from years of economic decline. We are proud that the massive refurbished Coca-Cola mural is playing a role in Hinton’s resurgence.
All of us at Coca-Cola Consolidated have been humbled by the heart-felt emotional reaction we have experienced by community leaders and residents of each town. These ghost signs are a proud part of the history of Coca-Cola, but we discovered they are so much more than a painted sign to the people of these towns. The signs are part of their histories as well. It has been heartening for us to hear all the ‘Coke stories’ of people who grew up with the wall murals and to create new ‘Coke stories’ for the young people who came to our events. Entire communities have come together to celebrate the revitalization efforts in their towns and to enjoy a good, cold delicious Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola has been part of the American life for more than 128 years, and the ghost signs are living testaments to that enduring connection between Coke and the American experience. Because of recent media coverage, our ghost sign project has been ‘discovered’ and we have been contacted by dozens of communities to work with them in restoring their Coca-Cola wall signs. We have years of work ahead of us, but we are on the lookout for more. Stay tuned!