Coca-Cola, the world's best known brand (according to BusinessWeek, at least) got its start back in 1866, when an Atlanta pharmacist, John Pemberton, created the first batch of the stuff.

But it was a Mississippi businessman that had a helping hand in building the company, too.

If you're from Vicksburg, the two things you know about are the National Military Park and the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum. Civil War history buffs know that Vicksburg was a key battle in the war. But not everyone knows that it's also the place where Coke was first bottled, in 1894.

And without that big step, who knows what might have happened to the company? Definitely no "New" Coke, right?

The entrepreneur who put together carbonated soda water and Coca-Cola syrup in a bottle was Joseph A. Biedenharn, the son of German immigrants. Joe helped his father and uncle at the store known as Biedenharn & Brother at an early age. In fact, when he was 14, Joe dropped out of school because he liked to bake. He wasn't all that interested in the shoe and boot business, but had a knack for the confectionery business.

When Joe's uncle died, the company became Biedenharn & Son, and at age 22, Joe became manager of the candy company, where he added a soda fountain to go along with the bakery and candy operations.

The soda at the time was nothing more than carbonated water flavored with syrups. In 1891, Joe bought some bottling equipment and began selling the bottled soda water in and around Vicksburg.

That same year, Asa Candler became the second owner of Coca-Cola, buying controlling interest of the company for $2,300. He incorporated the Coca-Cola Co. a year later.

A 5-gallon start

Biedenharn was introduced to Coke in 1890, when a salesman convinced Joe to buy a 5-gallon keg of Coca-Cola syrup. Joe used it at the soda fountain and it proved to be a popular drink.

Candler visited Biedenharn several times, and forged an agreement in which Joe would get a 25-cent rebate on every gallon he sold - provided that he bought at least 2,000 gallons a year.

But while the soda fountain business was good, Biedenharn decided it might be worth a try bottling and selling Coke outside the store. He did just that in 1894, and the rest is history, as the saying goes.

Candler, though, wasn't interested in bottling Coke as much as he was in selling the syrup. In 1899, he sold exclusive Coca-Cola bottling rights to two Chattanooga businessmen for the grand sum of $1. The businessmen - Benjamin F. Thomas and Joseph B. Whitehead - could bottle and sell Coke anywhere in the U.S. except for Mississippi, Texas and New England.

Thanks to Biedenharn, the rest of the U.S. - as well as the rest of the world - enjoys Coca-Cola to this very day, 113 years later.

So, have a Coke, and a smile, knowing that a Mississippian helped build the Coca-Cola empire.

Dennis Seid is business editor for the Daily Journal. Reach him at 678-1578 or dennis.seid@djournal.com

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