Color it bright

Madison and Greensboro reclaim their history with Chero-Cola, a company that gave Coca-Cola a run for its money in the 1920s –

Driving through downtown Madison or visiting the Oconee Brewing Co., it’s not hard to miss the bright, new Chero-Cola signs that have reclaimed their spots on historic brick walls. Thanks to “Color the World Bright,” a student mural group from the University of Georgia, these towns have reconnected their history with the renegade bottling company that flourished in the Southeast in the 1920s.

Prior to Prohibition, cities across the United States began to see the rise of soft drinks, also known as “temperance drinks.” While Coca-Cola dominated the market, another Georgia-based competitor emerged as a strong contender in the early 1900s.

As the story goes, Claud Hatcher, a grocer in Columbus, Georgia, decided to create his own brand of soft drink after Coca-Cola refused his request for a discount on the cases of Coca-Cola moving through his store. His first product was Royal Crown Ginger Ale, but his cherry-flavored Chero-Cola, developed in 1910, soon proved to be the star of production.

Chero-Cola Company bottling plants began popping up all over the Southeast, including the one built in 1913 in downtown Greensboro that later became part of the Mary Leila Cotton Mills and now houses the Oconee Brewing Co.

According to City of Madison Preservationist Ken Kocher’s research, the owners moved their operation to Madison in 1914, installing “$6,000 [worth of] modern up-to-date equipment” in the Swords Building at the corner of Washington and First Streets.

Interestingly, the Swords building served as the local saloon at the turn of the century. Its owner, J.B. Swords, was a distiller of whiskey and operated a saloon in the 1890s ahead of the looming  statewide prohibition that would come in 1915. Throughout the temperance movement, the popularity of soft drinks – sometimes called “temperance drinks” – grew, paving the way for the local saloon to become a soft drink bottling plant.

Chero-Cola was in the right place at the right time. But Hatcher’s defiance caught up with him in court in the early 1920s. Coca-Cola Company sued for exclusive use of the word “Cola” and won. The Madison plant shut down in 1921. By 1924, the last of Chero-Cola was sold and production had shifted to its new line, Nehi.

Though the court decision was reversed in 1942, ruling that “cola” was a generic term, Chero-Cola never made a comeback.

But if you look around town today, you can see fresh Chero-Cola signs on the sides of the bottling plants in Madison and Greensboro, brightly sharing the story of the area’s history with the renegade cola.

In September, an exact reproduction of the Chero-Cola sign on the Swords building in downtown Madison was completed. In November, work began on the sign in Greensboro at the Oconee Brewing Co., which proved to be more of a mystery.

As owner Nathan McGarity began researching the sign prior to its restoration, he ran across photographs taken in 1941 from the Library of Congress that made him scratch his head. The Chero-Cola sign that faced the parking lot of the brewery -– the one he was getting ready to restore – was not in the 1941 photographs. The only Chero-Cola sign was located on the back of the building, which incidentally collapsed during the renovation of the brewery and is now its outdoor patio space. What’s more, the 1941 photographs showed Chero-Cola written in its customary block lettering on the back wall. But when McGarity bought the building, the sign on the back wall showcased a Chero-Cola in script – similar to Coca-Cola’s brand – as did the matching sign on the side wall, facing the parking lot.

He concluded that, sometime after 1941, the building’s Chero-Cola sign on the back wall was painted over with the script and another sign was added to the side wall with the same script in its logo.

He wondered why anyone would go to the expense of painting an advertisement of a drink that had not been produced there in decades. Was it a throwback to an early iteration of the logo? It was too early, he felt, for nostalgia for the common painted sign. Or was this a blatant slight to Coca-Cola after the court reversal decision in 1942?

“We’ve always been curious as to why the mural was in the script style lettering of Coca-Cola instead of the block font, typical of Chero-Cola,” says McGarity. “It wasn’t until we started working with UGA professor Joseph Norman that we noticed in the photos taken in 2010 before the renovation that the style of the mural in the back had two layers. The original logo on the back had used the block style font, but had been repainted as a script style after 1941. Most likely, when that occurred, the parking lot logo was painted for the first time.”

Professor Norman, or “P Norm” as his students like to call him, spearheaded the restoration of both Chero-Cola projects in Madison and Greensboro. He leads a team of art students from the University of Georgia, selected from his painting and drawing classes to take part in projects throughout the region.

Some are “edgers,” like Ben Thrash, or “finishers” and “letterers,” like Katie Eidson. The fearless ones are “high-fliers” and the newbies are usually the “paint monkeys,” focused solely on pushing paint.

“These kids are so talented,” says Norman, explaining how he works to find the right mixture of personalities and talent to create a group on which he’s proud to bet his reputation. And while each project pays them money for scholarships – $13,000 in this year alone – Norman says they’re getting much more than that. A supporter of service learning, Norman says it’s the life lessons that make it worthwhile. “We’re teaching them to paint outdoors using special materials, and they’re learning that painting on brick is different than painting on canvas,” he says. “But what’s more is they’re learning teamwork, discipline, and how to work within detailed parameters.”

The team is called “Color the World Bright,” a name that was a natural fit when Norman had the idea twelve years ago. As director of UGA’s study abroad program in Latin America, Norman was always looking for ways to raise money for scholarships. He decided to give murals a try. “I said, ‘Hey, why don’t a few of us peel ourselves off, do some murals, and make some money to give out to the other kids who need cash,’” he says. “Someone who already had their trip paid for would work and give their money to a friend – kind of like a buddy system. So I said, ‘Man, aren’t we coloring the world bright?’ And the name just stuck.”

In twelve years, Norman says Color the World Bright has worked on more than 20 projects. They’ve transformed a rehabilitation center in Snellville into New York City, painted large-scale religious themes at Ebenezer Baptist Church West in Athens, and created a salute to service members in Rutledge. Their work can be found throughout the region and even all the way down to the equator.

“We have two murals at the center of the world, in Ecuador,” says Norman proudly. “On these study abroad trips, we would try and find a way to connect to these populations, connect with all the artisans, and the government, and leave something behind,” he explains.

It’s not much different than what they do locally with communities wanting to restore a piece of their history or create a story of their town for all to see.

In fact, the connection to the community is what Ben Thrash says he enjoys most about working with Color the World Bright.

“Every single place that we’ve been, the community has been so supportive – giving us all the food they can muster, giving us unlimited rides at their fall festival, inviting us to eat at their restaurants,” says Thrash. “Everyone just gets so excited and comes together around a mural because it’s so public, and that’s what I enjoy. I like art that’s more accessible.”

As Norman explains, their work “informs, engages, and inspires” – making them a perfect fit to tell the story of Chero-Cola and share the history of its spaces within local communities.

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