The story of the World’s Largest Nehi Bottle has always fascinated me. Below is an excerpt from my book, “Forgotten Tales of Alabama.”
Every student heading from the north to the campus of Auburn University in southern Alabama has turned off Alabama Highway 280 onto Highway 147, which becomes College Street and takes motorists into the heart of downtown and the entrance of campus. What those students may not know is that the corner of this intersection was once a famous landmark.
Margaret Bradley Ernest was 11 years old in 1924 when a man arrived at the family farm in Farmville, Alabama, to speak to her father, W.W. Bradley. The man had come to ask her father if he could use an outer parcel of his land for a building project. Bradley agreed.
“My father was just generous like that,” Margaret recalled in May 2010, at age 97. “He just gave it to him. He never did get any rent on it.”
The man was John F. Williams, owner of the Nehi Bottling Company in the adjacent town of Opelika, but Margaret knew him as “Chero-Cola” Williams after the name of the company that owned Nehi products at that time. What Williams proposed was unusual: He wanted to build the world’s largest Nehi bottle at the intersection as a roadside advertisement.
The Nehi line of fruit-flavored soft drinks was introduced in 1924 by a company that sold Chero-Cola and was incorporated as Chero-Cola/Union Bottle Works.
Nehi was offered in orange, grape, root beer, peach, and other flavors. It became an instant hit, outselling its predecessor, Chero-Cola, leading the company to change its name to Nehi Corp. in 1928. But then came the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression. In 1931 and 1932, Nehi sales hit bottom and the company lost money in 1932, the only year it did not make a profit.
In 1933, sales began to stabilize and Nehi officials decided to reformulate their failed Chero-Cola and name it Royal Crown Cola, known across the South as RC Cola and often enjoyed with a MoonPie. It soon outsold Nehi and the company again changed its name, this time to Royal Crown Cola Co., which we know today as RC Cola.
In 2015, Auburn Heritage Association erected a historical marker at the site of The Bottle.