Tuesday, November 8, 2011

It's the Real Thing

Have you ever kicked back with an ice cold Pemberton's French Wine Coca? Me neither, and you'd probably get hauled off to prison if you tried to today. But way back in 1886 coca wines were all the rage and were touted as treatments for morphine addiction, dyspepsia, headaches, impotence, and more. To be clear, coca wines were a combination of alcohol and cocaine, and Pemberton's French Wine Coca is known the world over today as Coca-Cola. That's right, alcohol and cocaine combined together can cure morphine addiction and impotence. Who knew? I am pretty sure it causes both as well, but that's beside the point.

Coca-Cola's original formula, developed by John Pemberton, was an attempt to make a non-alcoholic coca-wine. You see, Fulton County, GA - from where Pemberton hailed - had just become a dry county. Apparently drinking alcohol was looked down upon as a vice, but drinking five ounces of pure cocaine per serving was completely okay. In fact, the earliest version of Coca-Cola contained primarily cocaine and caffeine, derived from the coca leaf and the kola nut, respectively. Thus the name, with the "K" in Kola switched out for a "C". And it wasn't until 1904 that cocaine was removed entirely from the formula. To this day, however, coca leaves are used in the formula for making Coke. One company, located in New Jersey, is legally allowed to import coca leaves, extract the cocaine for medicinal purposes, and deliver the "spent" leaves to Coca-Cola for use in their product. Makes you wonder what might be in Mary Janes, doesn't it?

But if there is one product that is known the world over as an American icon, it's Coca-Cola. And the fellow who took it global was a man by the name of Asa Griggs Candler from the tiny village of Villa Rica, Georgia, from where I am writing to you today. Griggs bought Pemberton's formula in 1887 and began producing Coca Cola (no hyphen). Problem was, Pemberton also sold the formula to no less than three other groups. It became a legal mess which really did not get straightened out entirely until 1914. But by 1894 Griggs was bottling and selling Coca-Cola and he never looked back. Yet the town he called home, until very recently, remained a sleepy, post gold-rush village of no more than a few thousand people - despite its location just 35 miles west of Atlanta.

Villa Rica was home to the Creek tribe for thousands of years before the arrival of white settlers. The local Creek were hunters, and not warriors, and made what they thought was an alliance with the settlers in the form of a treaty in 1825. But gold was discovered in Villa Rica shortly thereafter, and you can probably guess how that worked out. With the Creek out of the way, and rumors of gold circulating, the usual suspects of prospectors, speculators, shopkeepers, thieves, prostitutes, and more, descended on the area. When we think of the Wild West, places like Wyoming or the Dakotas may come to mind, but in the 1830s, this was it. Andrew Jackson was president, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence was still alive, and Abraham Lincoln was just 21 years old. In other words, America was still a very young nation. Yet in the next half a century, a young man from this town would go on to become world famous for a concoction he bought from a pharmacist trying to cure impotence with cocaine and caffeine. What a country.

Villa Rica is famous for more than just Coca-Cola and the gold rush. It is also the birthplace of Thomas A. Dorsey, who is widely credited with creating gospel music. He grew up in the church, the son of a traveling preacher and a church organist. But he struck out on his own playing secular blues music as "Georgia Tom", eventually returning to rural Georgia to make spiritual music. His songs incorporated a bluesy "bounce" not normally associated with church music. These new versions of old spirituals widely became known as "Dorseys" but their creator preferred to call them "gospels". The latter name stuck. He wrote and recorded over four hundred songs, some of which were hits by Mahalia Jackson, Red Foley, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and more. His childhood home is long gone, but the town honors him annually with the Thomas A. Dorsey Birthplace and Gospel Heritage Festival.

In fact, the town does a tremendous job of preserving its rich past all around. The downtown features a raised sidewalk upon which you can stroll by impeccably restored structures, quaint antique shops and eateries, and numerous historic sites. And if golf is your game - it is mine - you can hit The Frog, a Tom Fazio designed, 18-hole masterpiece. I am staying in a timeshare rental at Wyndham Resort at Fairfield Plantation, which features its own championship golf course, a swimming beach, three outdoor pools, four tennis courts, picnic areas, and a recreation center. Plus Atlanta and Six Flags Over Georgia are just a little over thirty miles away. Heck, there's so much to do and see in this area, you might need one of those cocaine-caffeine concoctions just to squeeze it all in.

Well, I am off to the Pine Mountain Gold Museum. Not only was this the location of the first gold strike in the U.S., and the current home of a neat museum, but it is still actively producing gold. That's right, and some folks estimate that 80 percent of the "mother lode" in Villa Rica was never discovered. For $5 per person, you can try your hand at panning for gold that is 98% pure, a.k.a. 23 carat, and that's just what I am going to do. With the price of gold these days, I should have this trip paid for by nightfall. But heck, I'll be happy with a Coke and a smile.

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