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JIM: A Hearty Welcome: Dr. Pepper Comes to Town, 1937

In 1937 a tornado blew into town, in he person of James Rives Kerbow, who proposed to make Columbia, KY, the center of production of a potable food product - Dr. Pepper - a softdrink so wholesome the company's advertising recommended, "Drink a bite to eat - at 10, 2, and 4 o'clock." Community leaders, even the newspaper, were so depression weary they were scarcely able to work up enthusiasm, but the young man from Greenville, TX made it happen, and a rather glorious era began.
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As 1936 faded, Christmas passed, and the days segued into a new year, things were beginning to look up in America. While the business outlook wasn't exactly rosy -- unemployment had dropped to 12% -- by the early spring of 1937, it certainly wasn't as bleak as it had been. (My father, who turned eighteen just weeks after Black Tuesday, rarely cursed, but when speaking of the 1930s, his voice went hard when he said, "I lived through 'the good old days' -- and you can damn well have them.")

Less than a month past the vernal equinox that year -- right on the cusp of another trough, the second depression-within-a-depression during the decade -- a one-man Texas tornado blew into Adair County and brought in his wake a ray of economic sunshine.

On Monday, April 12th, James Rives Kerbow appeared in Columbia, "investigating the advisability of locating a bottling plant here for the manufacture of 'Dr. Pepper'." Mr. Kerbow, of Greenville, Texas, still single and just short of 32, recently had been awarded a nine-county area in which to bottle and distribute the soft drink. He spoke favorably of Columbia, calling it "the most desirable place to locate his plant" and promised to return within a few days to "finish negotiations for a location."

A few weeks of newspaper silence about the undertaking followed (one can scarcely imagine the wild speculations and scoffing dismissals), and at first glance, the May 19 edition of the News seemed to offer more of the same; The lead headlines informed the casual reader of such matters as "Scout Troops to be Organized"; "1 Dead, 2 Hurt in Crash Thursday"; "Income Tax Head Addresses Club"; and "Community House Sought Here." Sandwiched between the second and third of those were before and after photos captioned "The Hindenburg's Rendezvous With Death."

More patient readers, however, spotted halfway down the page in the fifth column the News for which so many had been waiting: "Bottling Plant to Open in Columbia." Mr. Kerbow had kept his word! He had leased the Murray Garage Building and already was "installing necessary equipment for opening a Dr. Pepper bottling plant here within three weeks." Columbia would serve as the distribution point for his entire franchise area, to-wit: Adair, Green, Taylor, Russell, Metcalfe, Cumberland, Wayne, and Clinton counties.

Edward Walton, also of Texas, was hired as manager and Mr. Kerbow's father, Thomas M., would assist. The younger Mr. Kerbow promised to hire several local people and stated that two trucks would be "put into operation immediately upon opening, distributing Dr. Pepper and Kist fruit flavor drinks."

(This was only mention found of Mr. Walton. Early on, P.R. "Pat" McMeans, of Greenville, Texas, was identified as Mr. Kerbow's business partner, and for the space of a few months in 1938, Mr. McMeans and family resided in Columbia before returning to Greenville in August. He had worked as an advertising manager in print journalism prior to moving to Kentucky, and he expected to "again engage in the newspaper business" upon his return to Texas. This was the last mention of Mr. McMeans association with the bottling plant. If he and Mr. Kerbow parted business ways it apparently was on a amicable basis, as the former served as an usher in the latter's wedding later that year.)

Mr. Kerbow and his parents immediately moved into "an apartment in the Reed residence." Their quarters likely was space in the E.W. Reed home recently vacated by Mr. and Mrs. A.S. Broaddus, who had moved to their just-completed residence on Wilson Street. (Toward the end of 1938, Rives and his sweetheart, Miss Hazel Horton, 28, a resident and teacher of Greenville, Texas, were married in that city. After a honeymoon trip in the South, said the News, the couple "will return to Columbia where they have taken an apartment on Burkesville Street." The announcement identified Mr. Kerbow as a "leading young business man of this city.")

The next edition of the local paper announced work on the equipment installation continued apace and that the opening date would soon be made public. The brief article referred to Mr. Kerbow as "a live wire," and ended by stating, "This new industry is being given a hearty welcome here and the plant can't be put in operation soon enough to suit local citizens." By this time, Rives had joined the Rotary Club and was to speak to the other members the following week.

In early June, he expressed the hope of having the plant in operation the following week, progress having been slowed by "strikes in the East [having] made it difficult for him to secure equipment."

Despite the delays beyond his control, Mr. Kerbow was a man of his word and in the June 16th News, the opening of the plant earned prime front page real estate -- the rightmost column, top: "Dr. Pepper Plant Now Operating." The opening paragraph -- part news, part editorial, and part free advertising -- read thus:

"Dr. Pepper, that famous new drink which the people of Columbia and surrounding counties have been hearing so much about, was introduced on all soft drink stands here last Friday [June 11th] and it's a Wow! If you haven't tried it, stop what you're doing immediately, go out and drink a bottle."

The article also stated that the Dr. Pepper trucks would invade all nine counties in the franchise area that week, and that Miss Vallie Cheatham had "accepted a position as secretary to Mr. Kerbow." Miss Cheatham, a Cumberland County native who later married J. Winfrey Page, had just turned twenty-four.

Related Larry Smith Photo:

Favorite Old Photo from Larry Smith: Dr. Pepper Bottling plant. Click on photo for original posting, with detailed cutline.

Historical side notes:

The first mention of the Murray Garage came in the forepart of July 1924 with the announcement that

"Mr. Albin Murray is making preparations to erect a large concrete building, 72x40, on his lot back of the residence and fronting the cross street. It is our understanding that it will be used as a garage. Mr. Murray has already had several applications from renters."

The earliest citation specifically referring to the structure as the Murray Garage appeared in early November 1928 with the paid announcement from E.J. Bennett, Manager, that "The Bennett Motor Co. has moved to the Murray Garage and will operate a first class service station..." (Mr. Bennett, a native of Adair County, had lived in western states for many years before returning to Columbia in 1924. At one time, his business partner in the enterprise was Mr. Ray Flowers.)

The name next popped up in early March 1931 under the headline "Used Car Firm":

"Messrs. G.W. Burton and T.A. Furkin have opened a used car sales room in the Albin Murray Garage, just off of Burkesville Street and have for sale all make[s] of good used cars. They are also local and surrounding territory agents for the new Marmon automobile..." (In this case, "new" possibly referred to the Marmon Series 16 line of vehicles, introduced in 1931 and powered by a straight-sixteen engine.)

Beyond a handful of ads from Burton & Furkin in 1931, the garage drew scant mention until 1937 and the arrival of Mr. James Reeves Kerbow and Dr. Pepper. In 1934, Mr. Murray had torn down an old business house near the garage and on that lot erected a filling station, which he sold to Mr. Alvin Lewis in February 1935.

(Article (c) 2017 JIM.)

This story was posted on 2017-05-25 05:52:25
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Dr. Pepper ad when Rives Kerbow came to town

2017-05-25 - Columbia, KY - Photo from the collection of JIM facsimile from Adair County News, Columbia, KY.
This half-page +/- ad that appeared on page 8 of the June 16, 1937 edition of the News. - JIM

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Where Dr. Pepper Bottling Plant isn't any more

2017-05-28 - Municipal Parking Lot, Corner E Fortune and S Reed Streets, Columbia, KY - Photo by Ed Waggener, .
Many remember when Rives Kerbow's Dr. Pepper Bottling Plant occupied much of what is now a lightly used City of Columbia Parking lot. For those who've wondered since the popular article by JIM, "A Hearty Welcome: Dr. Pepper Comes to Town, 1937," was posted, this photo is posted for context. Clicking Read More accesses one of Jim's was interesting stories. - EW

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