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Columbus, Georgia

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

John Pemberton graduated from medical school when he was 19 – not entirely possible now, of course, but that was 1850. But then how long does it take to learn the practice of bloodletting, which was the accepted cure-all until late into the 19th century?


Dr. Pemberton, however, didn’t buy into the theory of draining blood from sick people to make them well. Since he had also picked up a degree in pharmacy, he opened up shop in Columbus, Georgia, in 1853 as a druggist. He built a laboratory and began stirring up concoctions ranging from medicines to perfumes. It was here that he began working on a beverage – intended to stop headaches and relieve exhaustion – that today is one of the best known tastes in the world.


His friend and bookkeeper suggested that it be called Coca-Cola, after its prime ingredients – coco leaves and kola nuts. The bookkeeper – he had excellent penmanship – scripted “Coca-Cola” into the flowing letters of the logo that are today synonymous worldwide with the USA. Pemberton moved to Atlanta where he eventually sold his drink formula for $2,300. He died there in 1888 at age 55. Had he lived just a few more months, he would have seen the birth of the Coca-Cola Company – a corporation that for years has been one of the top Fortune 500. “Cokes” are consumed on this planet now at the rate of one million a day.


In Columbus’s Historic District is the small house where Pemberton and his wife lived from 1855 to 1860. Its kitchen has been turned into a mini-apothecary diorama preserving the feel of a simpler time, depicting how the creator of Coke may have lived and worked.


This historic house is one of six on Heritage Corner here. It’s near the 15-mile long RiverWalk that extends along the Chattahoochee River.


Columbus is one of the last planned cities of the original 13 colonies. Surveyors laid it out in 1826. It is situated at the end of what was then the navigable portion of the Chattahoochee River, which was Columbus’s connection to the world. It linked the plantations in the region with the international cotton market via New Orleans.


I walked along the river to the Coca-Cola Space Science Center. Designed primarily as a learning center for school
kids, it’s operated by Columbus State University. I got into a flight simulator there and safely landed a space shuttle on the first try. Looking over my shoulder were two surprised, techie-looking teenagers. They had been trying before me, but kept crashing it. They challenged me to do it again. Not wanting to press my luck, I told them in the real world all an astronaut gets is one chance.


I walked to the Springer Opera House, the state theater of Georgia that was built just after the Civil War. The 700-seat main hall still has its curving double balconies and delicate tulip lights in spite of some renovations. And it retains the feel of an elegant showplace where generations past have piled layer upon layer of laughter, tears, dreams and passion.


Will Rogers, Buffalo Bill, the Barrymores, Oscar Wilde and John Philip Sousa all graced this stage, as did the
Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth. His actor-brother, John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin, was shot in the leg at a saloon right here in town. Think how history might have played out had the shooter been a better shot.


Welcome to America’s Outback.


e-mail address: [email protected]


Next month
Bill will be in Cherry Grove, Minnesota.

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