At 11:48 a.m. Tuesday the last bottle of Coke reached the end of the line.
That 6.5-ounce bottle, cast for the Minneapolis Coke bottling works in 1948 and filled at the Winona Coca-Cola Bottling Co., was the last glass returnable bottle of Coca-Cola filled and capped in the United States.
“This is the last one,” LeRoy Telstad, vice president and general manager, said, holding the bottle high before handing it off to auctioneer Jon Kohner, who opened the bidding to a crowd of Coke executives, distributors and local Coca-Cola drinkers.
Five minutes and $2,000 later, Michael Faber, president of Viking Coca-Cola of St. Cloud, became the proud owner of what is doubtless the most expensive bottle of pop ever sold in Winona.
Faber allowed a bottle opener nowhere near his prize acquisition.
“I plan to retire on this one day,” he said of his one-of-a-kind purchase.
Anyone else who thirsts for their own sip of soft-drink history will have an opportunity beginning next week to purchase one of the remaining 5,879 bottles filled during the final bottling run. Telstad said the last 6.5-ounce bottles will be sold for $20 each, with all proceeds going to resurface Winona’s bike and walking paths.
The last run of returnable bottles in Winona “is the concluding chapter to a long story,” said Phil Mooney, Coca-Cola’s chief archivist, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony.
The Winona Coca-Cola Bottling Co. has been filling the bottle since it opened in 1932, 80 years ago.
“It’s been a good, long run,” said company president Clint Kuhlmann.
The first Coke was sold in 1886 at a drugstore soda fountain in Atlanta. Coke was strictly a soda fountain product until 1894, when a Vicksburg, Miss., Coca-Cola wholesaler, Ollie Biedenharn, got to wondering if people out in the country would buy in bottles the Coca-Cola they’d gotten a taste for when they came into town.
“The first bottle was bottled on the banks of the Mississippi,” said Randy Mayo, a Biedenharn descendent.
As was the last.
The bottled Coke first sold in Vicksburg and then across the country wouldn’t be sold in what we know of as “Coke bottles” for 21 years, Mooney said. The iconic Coke bottle was the product of a 1915 design competition won by the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Ind. The company’s design was unique in that it produced a practical container that could be instantly identified, even in pitch darkness, solely by feel.
So distinctive was the design it has been both patented and trademarked, Coca-Cola’s archivist Mooney said. It was so distinctive, so successful that for the next 50 years — until 1955 — that the only way Coca-Cola was sold was in the 6.5-ounce returnable bottle or in a glass as a fountain drink.
In 1955, King-sized Coke was introduced — in returnable 10-, 12- and 26-ounce Family Size bottles. Coke in cans was introduced in 1960, along with Sprite and Fanta products, Mooney said, followed by Tab, the company’s first diet drink, in 1963.
The returnable glass bottle eventually became a victim of changing times and habits, Mooney said. Returnables became less cost-effective as the product line expanded and consumers favored the convenience of non-returnable cans and bottles over storing and returning bottles to the grocery store to retrieve a deposit.
“We’re just not geared that way any more,” Mooney said.
But for people of a certain age, that heavy, icy bottle of Coke is unforgettable. Winona Mayor Jerry Miller recalled Tuesday how as teens he, Don Klagge and Dave Mertes would finish an afternoon workout at the ‘Y’ by settling down in front of the TV with Howdy-Doody and a Coke.
“That bottle of Coke was the highlight of our day,” he said.