(Above) Chattanooga Coca-Cola bottling plant relocated to this facility at 201 Broad Street in 1931.
Benjamin Franklin Thomas and His Impact on Chattanooga
Photos Courtesy of Chattanooga Public Library
I am a big fan of Coca-Cola, and I was recently reading about how the beverage was first bottled in Chattanooga by entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin Thomas and his business partners. I was wondering … how else did Thomas’s family impact the city of Chattanooga?
I’m glad you asked. As many locals know, in 1899 Chattanooga attorneys Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead signed an agreement with Asa Candler, president of the Coca-Cola Company, for the rights to bottle the “Coke” beverage. At the time, the beverage was only distributed in drug stores as a fountain drink, and since Candler thought that bottling the product was sure to fail, he sold the duo the bottling rights for just $1.
Soon after purchasing the bottling rights, Thomas and Whitehead enlisted the help of John Lupton to help finance the first plant, which opened at 17 Market Street. Whitehead became the company’s first president, Lupton assumed the role of vice president, and Thomas became the secretary and treasurer. Thomas’s involvement in the company began to grow, and before long, he’d assumed the day-to-day operations of the business.
The Coca-Cola Bottling Company quickly grew, and it became apparent that a franchise system would need to be put in place. Whitehead and Lupton shared control of the West, while Thomas controlled most of the eastern United States.
A worker mans the production line inside the bottling plant.
During this time, Thomas had married Anne Jones. The couple was childless, and with a thriving business and no one to one day assume the responsibilities of the company, Thomas needed a succession plan. He invited his teenage nephew, George Thomas Hunter, to move to Chattanooga, and Hunter agreed. He moved to the city at the age of 17 and attended Baylor School while his uncle began grooming him to take over the company. Beginning in 1906, Hunter served as secretary of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, and in 1914, upon Thomas’s death, Hunter took control of the business.
Hunter continued to run his family’s business until stepping down in 1941. He became chairman of the board and hired DeSales Harrison from Atlanta to take over as president. Three years later, Hunter would go on to create the Benwood Foundation in honor of his late uncle. The Benwood Foundation is still in operation today and works to procure grants for public education, art, and community development throughout Chattanooga.
This home first belonged to insurance broker Ross Faxon before being sold to the Thomas family. George Hunter inherited the mansion before it later became what is known today as the Hunter Museum of American Art.
When Hunter died in 1950, he had no children or spouse to take over his homestead, which he had inherited from his aunt and uncle. The mansion, located in the present-day Bluff View Art District, became managed by the Benwood Foundation following Hunter’s passing. A year after his death, the foundation was approached by the Chattanooga Art Association with the prospect of turning the Hunter mansion into an art museum. The foundation obliged, and on July 12, 1952, the two organizations opened the George Thomas Hunter Gallery of Art. This endeavor marked the creation of the first art museum in Chattanooga, and it was later renamed the Hunter Museum of Art in 1975.
So, there you have it. From delicious drinks to American art, Benjamin Thomas and nephew George Hunter have left a lasting impression on the city of Chattanooga. Their legacy has created organizations that have stood the test of time and impacted some of the city’s most iconic elements.
Hope this helps!
Resident History Hound
A group of students visits the Coca-Cola bottling plant.