Photo by Emily Buss
The Winona Coca-Cola Bottling Company owner Clinton L. Kuhlmann proudly stands with Vice President and General Manager LeRoy Telstad, who holds the very last glass bottle refilled at the plant. Kuhlmann's father, Clinton A. Kuhlmann, founded the company.
It was the end of an era Tuesday morning when the very last 6.5-ounce returnable glass bottle of Coca-Cola was refilled and rolled off the line at Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Winona. The local plant was the last in the country where the smaller glass bottles were refilled. For the past 80 years, the company at the corner of Franklin and Second streets gave children and adults of Winona the taste of sweet nostalgia in a small bottle.
When the product was introduced to Winona in 1905, Coca-Cola had been in business only two decades. The brand began to be distributed in other countries around the world, and by the end of the roaring '20s bottling plants were scattered across the United States.
In 1932, an adventurous Winonan by the name of Clinton A. Kuhlmann put his years of washing pop bottles to good use. Along with his business partners, he took over the Franklin Street facility and dedicated it to Coca-Cola products. The plant today is now a major distributer of all Coca-Cola products. Kuhlmann’s son, Clint L. Kuhlmann, took over the business, and it is now run by his son-in-law, General Manager LeRoy Telstad.
Telstad has been a dedicated employee of the Winona Coca-Cola plant since the early '80s and admitted that seeing the last few glass bottles roll down the assembly line was a somewhat bittersweet.
“The main goal, well my main goal, was to be the last company to fill these bottles. And we did it,” Telstad said. “It was a pride thing.”
All 13 employees were on hand for the event and made sure the nearly 6,000 bottles rolled smoothly off the assembly line. Route salesman Craig Mueller said he normally doesn’t work inside the plant but was excited to be on the line. Other workers also wore different hats on Monday .
Darvin Peterson, who worked 30 years at the plant in various positions, said he has done it all, but most recently was washing bottles.
“We had to pick one job for the day and I couldn’t wear 20 hats,” Peterson joked as he pushed bottle after bottle into the industrial-sized washer. “There were a few tears today. No one got to see what I did for work, up until today. And, they got to see a little piece of history in the making.”
For eight decades, the vintage bottles, some stamped with the word "Winona" on the bottom, were the signature product at the plant. But the company decided to stop refilling them due to outdated manufacturing equipment. In August, the company announced that since anticipated manufacturing standards went beyond the design of the current equipment, necessary upgrades would not be a sound business decision.
“With the business changing and the consumer changing, the company wanted to reinvest in the distribution aspect of the plant,” said Kevin Morris, Vice President of Public Affairs for Coca-Cola’s Midwest region. “This product was just a small portion of the plant’s overall production. Everyone is excited about the future of this operation and I’m happy I get to be a part of it.”
There are no immediate plans to remove the original bottling equipment from the production room, but Morris said it may become part of the museum that has already been established on the second floor of the building.
Each of the last 6.5-ounce bottles will be sold, with the proceeds to help fund the repaving of the bike path around Lake Winona. The Winona Community Foundation is the repository for the funds.
“This whole organization and the entire Kuhlmann family have been just great to work for,” Jay Bade said. Bade has proudly driven a Coca-Cola truck for 10 years. “I have customers wishing the bottles would still be refilled. Like I’ve always said, 'Coke always tastes better from a bottle.' But, it’s great to be a part of history.”
The event was celebrated with visits from Coca Cola and local dignitaries, and other distributors from the region. A 1948 bottle recently refilled with Coke was auctioned, the high bidder a St. Cloud Coca Cola distributor. The funds will go to the bike path project. Bottles of Coke from the final 6.5-ounce production run will be available for $20, plus shipping and handling, beginning October 15. To get your piece of Winona Coca-Cola history, visit the Coca-Cola Winona Website.