Story By: Allison Mynard.
Video By: Alex Derencz.
In historic Downtown Opelika, Coca-Cola is refreshing the community with a newly discovered but old attraction. This discovery, housed in one of the Opelika’s oldest businesses, is surrounded by history and hardware.
Winston Smith T. Building Supply Company has been bustling with retired men convening about their latest renovation projects for the past 85 years. The dimly lit hardware store with its building supply-lined shelves is a staple on Railroad Avenue.
When Dozier Smith T., third generation owner of Winston Smith T. Building Supply Company, began renovating his hardware store in June of 2014, he came across a shade of red behind the plaster of a wall in his 104-year-old building.
After picking away at the remaining plaster for the next month and a half with only his bare hands and a pry-bar, Smith T. was astonished to find a perfectly preserved, hand-painted advertisement for Coca-Cola.
Baffled about what to do next, Smith T. called Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta and explained he had a painting he wanted more information about.
“When the man on the line offered for me to sell it to Coca-Cola, I responded, ‘Well, I can’t really do that, because it happens to be on the wall of my building’.”
This prompted headquarters in Atlanta to send down experts immediately to learn more about the previously hidden gem.
They expected to find a mural as tall and wide as a building’s exterior wall. But they didn’t expect the pristine condition of the hardly untouched paint that hid behind plaster for about 100 years. The bright reds and “Sprite Green” are expected to last another 100 years, as long as they remain untouched.
From what Coca-Cola historians know, the mural’s phrase, “Drink Coca-Cola, Relieves Fatigue, 5 Cents, Sold Everywhere,” were only found in ads between the years of 1907 and 1912. However, dating the mural proved to be a trickier challenge for the experts.
Smith T. knew that his grandfather opened the store in 1931 and later learned that the building was erected in 1910, leaving historians and the store owner to conclude that the mural was only exposed for two years, between 1910-1912.
When it came to identifying the painter of the 102-year-old mural, the task proved itself to be a modern day mystery. While the painter was expected to have passed away already, Smith T. said he hoped to learn more about him. However, after analyzing the perfect symmetry of the mural’s paint job, it is expected that where the artist would sign must be forever blocked by a permanent brick wall.
The hardware store looks like it has not seen much change since the plastering of the mural in 1912. But, downtown Opelika along Railroad Avenue is keeping up with the times and honoring its historical roots.
Founded in 1851, the city of Opelika was booming because of the rail line that led from Montgomery all the way to Atlanta. This rail line, passed by what is now South Railroad Avenue and other streets that have original buildings, including the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant, the strip of stores on South 8th Street and even the original train station depot where outdoor movies are now held during the summers.
Opelika Main Street Director Pam Powers-Smith clarifies how Coca-Cola has roots that run deep in the historical town.
“We’ve [the city] had a long relationship with Coca Cola. Until 10 years ago, the Downtown Opelika Event Center at 614 N Railroad Ave. was the bottling distribution site for central Alabama,” she said.
The building’s current owner, Lisa Ditchkoff, further explains, “They [Coca-Cola] were very vital to this area. They distributed all across Alabama and some into Georgia. It appeared that it was the biggest thing going on in this community at the time.”
Along the walls of the former Coca-Cola Bottling Factory are multiple framed Opelika newspaper pages, from mid-May of 1935, as the city was gearing up to welcome the new business. Crinkled, yellow, faded Opelika Daily News articles advertised the grand opening of the factory explained the history of Coca-Cola and listed specific stores in downtown Opelika where Coca-Cola could be purchased, capturing the excitement of time.
Even so, the recent discovery of a historical Coca-Cola advertisement was a pleasant surprise for Opelikans. The discovery prompted changes at the hardware store, including the installation of an official plaque honoring the mural discovery. Smith T. added his own touches to the latest display in his storefront.
With more than 40 years of service to Smith T. Building Supply, employee Cecil Rogers testifies that things had to change in the store in order to showcase the newest attraction.
“We already had squeezed shelves, but when we realized we had a mural to debut, some sacrifices had to be made, which included moving a six-foot shelf with over 1,200 pounds of nails.”
Even though the hardware store isn’t advertising about the Coca-Cola mural, a constant flow of people who hear about the mural by word of mouth, drop by frequently.
One a company Web site, www.coca-colacompany.com/history/coca-cola-murals-make-a-comeback, Laura Randall explains how in 1910, approximately 25 percent of the company’s entire advertising budget was devoted to wall signs that were typically placed in high-traffic areas like along train-tracks where all of the passengers heading to Atlanta to stop for a break with a refreshing Coca-Cola.
This kind of authentic history is becoming scarce in cities across America but preservation efforts to save the artwork and charm, otherwise known as “ghost painting” or retouching has become the norm in both small towns and huge metropolises.
Smith T., however, has no plans to touch the wall mural. “I want to keep it as original as possible and would hate to compromise the history by painting over the original paint or putting the wrong type of varnish that would ruin the existing paint.”
Instead, the storeowner and Opelika city councilman simply wants the community to enjoy it while they can while the mural is pristine as ever.
Visitors can find a Gus Malzahn cut-out holding a Coca-Cola right next to a vintage-inspired refrigerator supplying Coca-Cola products for customers to enjoy as well as a vintage window display with Coca-Cola memorabilia.
Lights were installed above the Coca Cola wall mural as well, allowing passersby to enjoy its beauty from 5:30 p.m. until 2 a.m.
The discovery is bringing in new traffic to the hardware store, including Coca-Cola fanatics hailing from all over. Smith T. Hardware’s bookkeeper, Katherine Brown, explains, “It’s really very exciting to everybody. And it is to me. I get to see the excitement on the other people faces.”
Smith T. describes how everyone seems to want to get their eyes on one of the oldest and best-conditioned Coca-Cola murals in the world. Some are simply “collectors or Coca-Cola fanatics who travel the country” while others tend to be retired men who want to reminisce about their childhoods and “the good ole days.”
Smith T. welcomes all with open arms, knowing that most may not be interested in purchasing building supplies.
”You know what? It’s okay because I don’t want to be responsible for depriving anyone wanting to learn about this city’s history and, if they do end up renovating or building something, hopefully we will be the first business they think of.”
According to one Coca-Cola advertisement in a newspaper clipping hanging in the Downtown Opelika Event Center, “We take pleasure in inviting the public to help us dedicate our new plant and equipment to ‘The Pause That Refreshes’.”
Thanks to the discovery of the mural, the painting is seems to be fulfilling its brand’s original purpose- making the community pause to reflect on the refreshing care taken to preserve Opelika’s history for years to come.
Smith T. Hardware and Building Supply
Although the building housing the celebrated Coca-Cola mural in downtown Opelika has been around since 1910, many don’t know about the story of a beloved staple in the close-knit community.
Smith T. Hardware and Building Supply is proudly run today by third generation Dozier Smith T. who was born and raised in Opelika and attended Auburn University prior to becoming the current president of his business and a member of the Opelika City Council.
Smith T’s grandfather, Winston Smith T., was born in Opelika in 1903 and opened the hardware business in 1931, becoming the third known occupant of the building. Prior to that, it housed Fredericks Furniture and then Cannon Motor Company. Long before that, in the late 1800s, the site was used to host boxing matches.
The family’s unusual last name came from an ancestor who changed his name from “John Smith” to “John Smith T.” around the start of the 19th Century. Although he was a native of Virginia and died in Missouri, it is speculated that John Smith T. “borrowed” the capital letter T from the state in which he lived much of his life, Tennessee.
His nephew and Dozier’s great-great grandfather, who was born in Chambers County, Alabama, was given the same name in honor of his uncle, John Smith T.
Smith T’s father, also named Winston, took over the business in 1957 and then passed it on to his son in 1996. Though Dozier Smith T. has just recently been able to view the popular Coca-Cola mural discovered during renovations at the store for the first time, he may not have been the first in his family to see it.
“He (my grandfather) would have been 4 or 5 years old when that was painted and maybe 6 or 7 when it was covered up. So he probably saw it.”
Offering a variety of hardware supplies including electrical, plumbing, lumber, paint and more, Smith T. Hardware has a loyal customer base.
Employee Cecil Rogers said, “We get a steady circulation of the usual men coming in to browse for what they may need for their next project or to just discuss techniques with fellow handymen.”
Rogers, an employee at Smith T. Hardware and Building Supply for more than 40 years, has seen his fair share of change in the store, especially since the discovery of the mural.
Not only do employees now need to have an excellent knowledge of all things tools and renovation techniques, they must also have the history of the store and mural ready to share with people passing through.
Main Street Director Pam Powers-Smith can vouch that the business is a fixture in downtown Opelika. “Many stores and restaurants come and go over the years, but as long as Dozier and company are around, that business will be around for many years to come.”