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Woodlawn Bottling Brought Pepsi to Town
By Sandra Aziz
Who would believe that a small bottling company begun by a plumber would become one of El Paso's most successful businesses? That is exactly what happened when Martin Sweeney and his family brought his company, Woodlawn Bottling, through decades of challenges before offering El Paso a leading soft drink, Pepsi-Cola. This decision would secure the company's position in El Paso's business history.
In 1889, pharmacist Caleb D. Bradham invented Pepsi-Cola in New Bern, North Carolina, while experimenting with different mixtures and medicinal compounds. The recipe included sugar, vanilla, oils, spices and the African kola nut. This recipe was similar to Coca-Cola's recipe, but one historian says that Pepsi added pepsin, a digestive enzyme commonly used to relieve an upset stomach. Writer Vincent Topkins says that the soda gained its name from the illness dyspepsia for which it claimed a cure. The beverage was initially called "Brad's Drink" but was later changed to the more trendy "Pepsi-Cola," according to J. C. Louis, author of "The Cola Wars."
Bradham formed Pepsi-Cola Company in North Carolina in 1902. The soft drink was first bottled in 6-ounce containers. Louis wrote, "Though young Pepsi suffered the same ambivalence between medical virtue and leisure refreshment that beset early Coca-Cola, success came quickly for the infant company."
By 1915, Bradham owned 300 franchise bottlers in 24 states. Volatile sugar prices during World War I would prove to be Bradham's downfall, however, and by 1923, he had declared bankruptcy. But Pepsi went on and made millions for many others in the next decades.
Jodie D. McCarley of San Antonio first brought Pepsi to Texas in 1929. He installed old bottling equipment in a small plant that he set up in his house. He used brown, green, and clear bottles for the soda. McCarley sold 13,300 cases of Pepsi in the first year.
The arrival of World War II brought new challenges to the soft-drink industry with shortages of sugar, crown caps, cork, gasoline, tires, trucks and coolers. At the same time, the demand for colas within the military rapidly increased. The drink was thought to "lift one's spirits." Texas bottlers took advantage of quota exempt sugar that was available through local military bases.
After the war, the great demand for soft drinks allowed Pepsi-Cola to expand and consolidate. Meanwhile, Martin Sweeney was enjoying success with his new career change from plumber to owner of El Paso's newest bottling company.
Historian William W. Lockhart writes that Sweeney came to El Paso from St. Louis between 1903 and 1904. By 1905, he had his new bottling company in full operation on East El Paso Drive. In 1907, he moved his company to Alameda Avenue. Between 1881 and 1905, El Paso's only two soft drink bottling companies had been Hook and Dieter Purity Bottling and Manufacturing Company and Henry Pfaff, both liquor dealers.
Sweeney moved his company to Frutas Avenue in 1909 and named it the Woodlawn Bottling Company where he bottled the brands Toltec and Woodlawn. The company was so prosperous that it would relocate two more times to gain space, first to 913 East Second Street and then to 802 South Florence.
Journalist Ken Flynn writes that Whistle, Toltec Punch, Toltec Ginger Ale, and Hires Root Beer were the most popular soft drinks of the era. By 1920, during Prohibition, Sweeney distributed several new drinks, including Toltec Grape and Pure Apple Cider. He also distributed near-beers called Barlo and Blatz. Because of its great success during Prohibition, Woodlawn added True Fruits Beverages in 1921 and established a small bottling plant in Juárez, Mexico. In 1926, Woodlawn became incorporated. Less than two years later, Sweeney died and his wife Margaret took over as company president.
Sweeney and Margaret Condon had married on May 31, 1915. She spent a year as Principal of Concordia School before switching to teaching at San Jacinto School. She left teaching to play an essential role in the success of Woodlawn Bottling Company. Margaret Sweeney had to face such difficulties as trying to keep the company afloat during the Great Depression. The sale of soft drinks fell about 63 percent by 1933. Woodlawn began producing vinegar, chilies, a table syrup called Mar-Dale and even bluing (used to keep laundry white) to keep company doors open. Margaret Sweeney said, " We bottle anything that might make a dollar."
Margaret and her sister May Condon, and brothers, John C. and James Lesley Condon, worked hard to bring the company through the rough times. It survived, and in 1935, they added a Pepsi-Cola franchise, the first in Texas. This acquisition proved to be an excellent business decision. The initial cost of supplies including bottles and concentrate was $320. John Condon's sons, Marshall and Dale, joined the company full time.
Competition in the soft-drink world became fierce, and the company needed a new advertising strategy. In 1940, Margaret Sweeney organized a Pepsi-Cola contest in order to increase company sales. In his article (Password 43: 143) about the soft drink industry in El Paso, Bill Lockhart wrote that 289 contestants shared $1,500 in prizes with the first place winner receiving $500. In the 1950s, the Condon brothers paid for ten radio spots daily for their products. These were only two of the many innovative advertisement campaigns that Pepsi-Cola launched both locally and nationally.
In 1939, the "Pepsi and Pete" comic characters who resembled the Keystone Cops appeared in 187 newspapers countrywide, and the advertisement was published ten separate times by 1942. The fifteen-second jingle "Nickel Nickel" advertising "twice as much for a nickel" would air some 300,000 times in the same year. The ad would later be called "Pepsi-Cola Hits the Spot."
Pepsi's more recent advertising campaigns have included celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Ray Charles, Cindy Crawford, the Spice Girls, Madonna, Britney Spears, Shakira, Beyonce and Jeff Gordon. They have sported slogans like " Pepsi For Those Who Think Young" and "The Choice of a New Generation."
The innovative Margaret Sweeney died in 1950. By that time, both of the Condon brothers had also died, and May Condon transferred all responsibilities of the company to her nephews, Marshall and Dale Condon. In 1954, May, Marshall, and Dale received the Pepsi-Cola's Per Capita award. In 1957, the corporation was renamed the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of El Paso with Marshall serving as President and Dale as Vice-President.
The business remained family owned and operated until 1997 when the Condons sold the company to PepsiCo Inc. The plant located at 10841 Pelicano Drive currently employs 85 people, according to Human Resource Manager, Gabby Nieto. Although the plant does not produce soft drinks, it bottles and distributes about three million cans of soda per year.
Unlike Pepsi's inventor, Caleb Bradham, the Sweeney/Condon family business survived wars, the Depression and incredible competition. Through determination, hard work and ingenious advertising, they turned a small bottling company into one of El Paso's oldest family-owned businesses.