Coke: You Can’t Beat the Feeling

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A thirst-quenching look at the soft drink’s surprising history at a Mississippi museum


VICKSBURG, Miss. — This placid town of 50,000 people on the east bank of the Mississippi River about 230 miles northwest of New Orleans isn’t exactly known as a den of iniquity.

Coke ad

A display at the Coca-Cola Museum in Vicksburg

Yet, in the late 19th century, Vicksburg was one of the main distribution hubs of cocaine in the United States.

No, the city wasn’t the headquarters of an international drug cartel.  And the surrounding fields grew cotton and soybeans, not coca plants.

Turns out, Vicksburg was the site of the very first Coca-Cola bottling plant.

In those days, part of the drink’s recipe, which was invented by an Atlanta pharmacist named John Pemberton in 1885, actually contained cocaine in the form of an extract from the coca plant.  Hence the name “Coca-Cola.”  At the time, cocaine was legal and used in a variety of medicinal products.

Coke bottling plant

The first Coca-Cola bottling plant, dating back to 1894

In 1894, Vicksburg native Joseph Biedenharn began bottling the drink in a two-story brick building in the heart of the city’s downtown.

Today, the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, owned and operated by the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation, is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

I recently spent a morning learning about the history of America’s most iconic soft drink during a stop in Vicksburg while on a weeklong cruise on the lower Mississippi River.  I was sailing on the American Duchess, a paddlewheel-propelled riverboat owned by the American Queen Steamboat Co.

Interestingly, there was absolutely no mention of cocaine at the two-story museum amidst all the displays showcasing the history of Coca-Cola.  There was a reproduction of the equipment first used to bottle Coke, a soda fountain dating back to 1900, lots of memorabilia and old Coke ads.

I jotted down the words from a 1906 advertising slogan promoting the many benefits of the not-so-soft drink:  “It relieves fatigue and imparts new vigor and new energy.”

Coke museum

The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum in downtown Vicksburg

I’m told cocaine will do that.

One of the museum’s docents confirmed that cocaine was used in the early days of the beverage, until the company noticed that teenagers were lingering a bit too long at the soda fountains, consuming copious amount of the cocaine-laced drink instead of going to school or work.

Due to public pressure, cocaine was eventually removed from the beverage, while the amount of caffeine was tripled.

“They substituted one buzz for another,” the docent told me with a smile.

Today, Coca-Cola no longer contains even a trace of cocaine.  Unless you want a sugar high or caffeine buzz, you’ll have to get your kicks elsewhere.

© 2019 Dan Fellner

Rollin’ on the River

By | Cruising, Louisiana, Mississippi | No Comments

Cruising the Mississippi on the paddlewheel-propelled American Duchess

The Arizona Republic — January 13, 2019

THE LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER – Big wheel keep on turning.

American Duchess

The American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Duchess in Vicksburg, Miss.

John Fogerty’s 1969 iconic song about hitching a ride on the “Proud Mary” evokes images of paddlewheel-propelled steamboats hauling people and cargo on the Mississippi River through the American South.

Today, most of the paddlewheels are gone, replaced by more efficient propulsion systems.  But for those wanting an illuminating trip to learn about the era of antebellum plantations, Mark Twain, the Civil War and the horrors of slavery, there are still a few remaining paddle-wheelers traversing the waters still known locally as “Ol’ Man River.”

I recently spent a week on one of the paddle-wheelers — the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Duchess, originally built as a casino riverboat in 1995, then elegantly refurbished in 2017 to accommodate 166 passengers.  The boat, which reaches a top speed of 15 mph, resembles a floating two-tiered white wedding cake with red frosting.

According to Joe McKey, the Duchess’ Captain, the red paddlewheels on the back of the boat aren’t just for nostalgia.  They provide 20-30 percent of the Duchess’ propulsion; the rest coming from diesel engines (see video shot by the author: paddlewheels propel the American Duchess).

Cruising the Lower Mississippi is an eye-opening way to learn about the region’s history – good and bad – and the rich mixture of Creole, Cajun, French, Spanish and African-American cultures, which has created one of the most diverse and intriguing melting pots in the country.

Duchess paddlewheels

Paddlewheels help propel the American Duchess up the Mississippi River

The cruise started and ended in New Orleans, which has rebounded nicely since it was decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Like most of the ship’s passengers, I arrived a day before the cruise departed so I could explore “The Big Easy.”  I walked through the city’s historic heart, the French Quarter, and dined in one of New Orleans’ most famous restaurants – the century-old Arnaud’s – known for its Creole cuisine and live jazz music.  It was the first time I ever tried alligator sausage, an Arnaud’s specialty.

After leaving New Orleans, the Duchess stopped in four ports in Louisiana and Mississippi.  In each port, American Queen provided free hop-on, hop-off buses with tour guides so that we could explore at our own pace.

“Premium excursions” were also an option.  Priced at around $70, they focused on specific themes or sites like the Civil War, Southern cooking or cotton plantations.

On a foggy morning near White Castle, La., we visited the Nottoway Plantation, built in 1859.  With 64 rooms, it’s the largest antebellum plantation house in the South and is reminiscent of the fictional Tara plantation from “Gone with the Wind.”

Slaves quarters

Slaves’ quarters built in 1840 at the Laura Creole Plantation in Louisiana

It was sobering to learn about the lives of slaves working the sugarcane and cotton plantations we visited.  Our guides didn’t try to romanticize the South’s antebellum history, instead painting a realistic picture of the slave trade and the awful conditions that millions of Africans brought to the Americas against their will had to endure from early colonial days to the end of the Civil War.

“We don’t shy away from that kind of stuff,” said guide and historian Kyle Crosby, when I asked if I could see the 180-year-old former slaves’ quarters at the Laura Plantation, a woman-run-and-owned Creole sugarcane plantation near Vacherie, La.  We were taken to the cabins where slaves lived – typically two families per cabin – which have been restored to show what conditions were like for the more than 300 slaves who once worked the plantation’s sugar fields.

In Natchez, Miss., we stopped for a visit at the notorious “Forks in the Road,” which at one time was the second-largest slave market in the South.  Located about a mile outside of the city limits, there’s little to see other than some signs and small markers. But the historical magnitude of the site – where human beings were bought and sold like cattle – was difficult to absorb.

It somehow seemed fitting that it was pouring rain during our visit to the Forks in the Road.  Not so fittingly, the site is located on Liberty Road.

Vicksburg battlefield

The battlefield at Vicksburg, where one of the most pivotal Civil War battles was fought in 1863

At our final stop in Vicksburg, Miss., we visited the site of one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War.  The surrender of Vicksburg by the Confederacy on July 4, 1863, gave the North control of the Mississippi River.  Along with the Confederacy’s defeat the day before at Gettysburg, Pa., the South’s chance of winning the war had all but vanished.  On a hillside across town, we visited the Vicksburg National Cemetery, where 17,000 Union servicemen are buried.

All told, we traveled 682 miles roundtrip from New Orleans to Vicksburg, with a slight detour on the Yazoo River.  The weather was surprisingly chilly; there were days when temperatures never climbed out of the 40s and a heavy fog often blanketed the river in the mornings.  But cruise fares on the Mississippi in the winter are cheaper and the crowds are smaller than in the spring or summer; our boat was only about 70 percent full.

Cruising the Lower Mississippi offers a distinctly different experience than river cruising in Europe.  True, the scenery on the Mississippi isn’t as resplendent as what you’ll see on the Danube, Rhine or Seine.  Instead of cruising past historic castles, churches and quaint villages, you’ll mostly sail by industrial barges and oil refineries.

Duchess Captain

Capt. Joe McKey steers the American Duchess down the Mississippi toward New Orleans

But the onboard experience on the Duchess was better than what I’ve experienced in Europe.  The boat – including the cabins — was far more spacious, offered nicer amenities, and there was first-rate entertainment every night.  In addition to an onboard house band and entertainers, local singers would be brought on the boat to give concerts featuring music that originated in the region, including blues and country.

The boat’s “Riverlorian” would give lively daily lectures about the river and its history.  And the crispy Mississippi catfish, Louisiana gumbo and vegan jambalaya served in the Duchess’ two restaurants were delectable.  It was never hard to find a bottle of Louisiana-made Tabasco sauce to add some heat.

While the towns on the river can’t compete with the ambiance and architecture of a Vienna, Budapest or Strasbourg, a trip on the Mississippi offers its own unique charms and an authentic slice of Americana – especially music and food — that is difficult to replicate anywhere else.

As Mark Twain once wrote:  “The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit.”

Rollin,’ rollin,’ rollin’ on the river.

                                                                                             © 2019 Dan Fellner

Biking Through The King’s History

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Elvis Presley’s Mississippi hometown now offers Elvis-themed bike tours

The Arizona Republic — July 15, 2018

TUPELO, Miss. – “Lord almighty, I feel my temperature rising.”

Elvis birthplace

The modest, two-room house where Elvis Presley was born

I was pedaling my 10-speed hard on a sweltering June day through the streets and dirt backroads of this town in the hills of northeast Mississippi and the lyrics of my favorite Elvis Presley song – “Burning Love” — kept running through my head.

“Help me, I’m flaming, I must be a 109.”

Sweat-drenched shirt aside, I was thoroughly enjoying myself as I explored the sites related to the formative years of one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century.

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo in 1935 and lived the first 13 years of his life here before moving to Memphis with his parents.  Today, 41 years after Elvis’ untimely death at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tupelo attracts 50,000-100,000 Elvis-loving tourists a year.  Many arrive on tour buses from Memphis, a 90-minute drive away.

But for those who want less of a cookie-cutter experience you get sitting on a bus tour, there’s now another alternative.  In May, Tupelo’s Convention and Visitors Bureau inaugurated a self-guided, Elvis-themed bike tour that takes visitors to 13 marked sites throughout the city tracing the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s upbringing.

If you can endure the heat, it’s an inexpensive and flexible way to see the sites at your own pace and work off some pounds from the tasty – but fattening – southern comfort food in which you’re likely to indulge.

Elvis booth

The “Elvis Booth” at Johnnie’s Drive-In, where Elvis used to sip RC Cola after school

For $12, you can have a bicycle delivered in the morning directly to your hotel and then have it picked up at the end of the day.  For maps, descriptions of all the sites, and to order a bike, visit

So far, the response has been better than the city hoped.

“Cycling is such a big thing right now and people want to explore a city in a different way,” says Jennie Bradford Curlee, director of public relations for the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau.  “Anyone can get in a car and see all these sites.  But you’re exploring more like Elvis would have as a child.”

Fittingly, I began the bike tour by pedaling a mile east from my hotel to the humble, two-room dwelling where Elvis was born and lived the first two years of his life.  His parents struggled financially and the family moved several times during Elvis’ 13 years in Tupelo.

The house, built by Elvis’ father, grandfather and uncle in 1934, is the centerpiece of a 15-acre park that includes a “Walk of Life,” a series of concrete blocks that traces each year of Elvis’ life.  Next door to the house sits the Elvis Presley Museum, which contains memorabilia related to Elvis’ legendary career, most of which was collected by a family friend.

Elvis statue

The “Homecoming Statue” of Elvis in front of Tupelo’s City Hall

The complex also includes a transplanted Assembly of God church that Elvis attended as a boy.  It was here that Elvis was first exposed to the rich, Southern gospel that became a staple of his musical repertoire.  Inside, visitors can experience a multi-media presentation of a 1940s Pentecostal church service, complete with an actor playing a young Elvis singing in front of the congregation.

From the birthplace, I rode down some dirt roads to visit the Mud Creek Swimming Hole, where Elvis and his friends would sneak a dip so their mothers wouldn’t know they were swimming unsupervised.

By then, it was lunchtime.  I pedaled to Johnnie’s Drive-In, where Elvis used to come with his friends after school for a cheeseburger and RC Cola.  It’s still an operating restaurant today and was packed, mostly with locals.  I had to wait for a family to finish its meal before moving into the popular “Elvis Booth,” where Elvis was once photographed.

Yes, I ordered a bottle of RC Cola.  While it was a bit too sugary for me, I figured if it was good enough for The King, it was good enough for me.

Two blocks away, I visited Lawhon Elementary School, which Elvis attended from 1941-1946.  A decorative guitar sits out front, in honor of the still-functioning school’s most famous student.

Lawhon Elementary

Lawhon Elementary School, which Elvis attended as a child

After reaching stardom, Elvis returned to Tupelo in 1956.  His concert in a park in front of City Hall is immortalized in “The Homecoming Statue,” based on a photo in which Elvis reached into the crowd to touch hands.

Perhaps my favorite stop on the journey was at the Tupelo Hardware Co. on Main Street in the city’s historic district.  Founded in 1926 by the same family that still owns it, Tupelo Hardware may be the only hardware store in the country that employs a full-time docent.

“I don’t know anything about hardware,” admits “Elvis Docent” Connie Tullos.  “Don’t want to know anything about hardware.”

What Tullos does know about is the nuts-and-bolts behind Elvis’ first guitar, which his mother Gladys bought him for his 11th birthday.  The two came into the hardware store to shop for Elvis’s present.  The story goes that Elvis wanted a rifle or bicycle, but his mother refused.  A store employee then brought out a guitar and handed it to Elvis.

“He took the guitar,” says Tullos.  “And the rest is history.”

Tupelo Hardware

Elvis got his first guitar at The Tupelo Hardware Co.

For those wanting a break from the Elvis-related sites, Tupelo is the headquarters of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a historic travel corridor used by Native Americans, European settlers and soldiers.  One of the prettiest stretches of road in the country, the parkway spans 444 miles from Nashville, Tenn., to Natchez, Miss.

There are numerous walking trails, camping sites and exhibits located near the road, which has a rigidly enforced speed limit of 50 mph.  I’m told the Natchez Trace is breathtaking when the leaves are changing color in the fall.

It’s also worth visiting the Tupelo Automobile Museum, which has a collection of more than 100 cars, dating back to a 19th-century steam-powered vehicle.  There are cars owned by Liberace, B.B. King, and of course, Elvis.  In addition to a 1976 Lincoln Elvis bought and gave to a friend, the Elvis exhibit includes a collection of 33 original movie posters from his movies configured to spell his name.

National Ranching Heritage Center

The scenic 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway is headquartered in Tupelo

About 38,000 people live in Tupelo, who proudly embrace their favorite son’s impact on pop culture around the world.  Seemingly, every store, restaurant or music venue in town has some sort of Elvis reference.  For dinner at the popular Neon Pig, a combination butcher shop and restaurant, I ordered the “Belvis Burger.”  It was a hamburger topped with pork belly.

On my final morning in Tupelo, I stopped at a downtown restaurant for breakfast.  On the sign of the Strange Brew Coffeehouse was a clever spin on one of Elvis’ biggest hits:  “Can’t Help Falling in Love with Brew.”

I’m guessing The King would have smiled.

© 2018 Dan Fellner

All Shook Up in Mississippi

By | Jewish Travel, Mississippi | No Comments

Tracing Elvis Presley’s little-known Jewish roots in Tupelo Jewish Life Magazine — July 2018

TUPELO, Miss. — Inside a museum next to the modest two-room house where Elvis Presley was born in 1935, visitors will find all the things you’d expect to see in a shrine celebrating the early years of a boy who would grow up to become the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll.

Elvis menorah

The menorah on display at the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum in Tupelo

There are guitars, childhood photographs, old record albums, performance costumes and other memorabilia from Elvis’ illustrious career.

But amidst all the artifacts inside the Elvis Presley Museum, there’s something else that one wouldn’t expect to find – a gold-colored chrome menorah with nine Hanukkah candles.

Could it be that perhaps the greatest American cultural icon of the 20th century was a member of the tribe?

Well, sort of.

Turns out, Elvis’ maternal great-great grandmother, Nancy Burdine, was believed to be Jewish.  Her daughter gave birth to Doll Mansell, who gave birth to Elvis’ mother, Gladys Smith.  That, according to a Jewish law called halakha, which confers Jewish lineage by way of the mother, makes Elvis technically a Jew.

While Presley was aware – and even proud — of his Jewish pedigree, there is no evidence he ever practiced the faith.

I recently went to Tupelo, Miss., to learn more about Elvis’ upbringing and his Jewish roots.  In the process, I gained a new appreciation for Judaism in the Bible Belt and the resoluteness of a small – but close-knit — Jewish congregation in the hills of northeast Mississippi that has survived for more than 70 years.

Elvis birthplace

The modest two-room house where Elvis was born

As for the menorah, it was originally owned by the family of George Copen, who moved to Tupelo from New York in 1953.  I met Copen, now 75, at Friday night Shabbat services at Temple B’Nai Israel, a small Reform synagogue located in a quiet residential neighborhood about a 10-minute drive from Elvis’ birthplace.

Copen told me that his childhood best friend in Tupelo was a boy who lived across the street named Jim Hill.  Jim’s mother, Janelle McComb, was a close family friend of the Presleys.  She first met Elvis when he was just a two-year-old, beginning a friendship that would last until Presley died in 1977 at his Graceland mansion in Memphis.

According to Copen, Janelle once asked to borrow his family’s menorah and show it to some friends.  Apparently, Elvis was one of those friends.  At any rate, the menorah was never returned to the Copen family.  George speculates that Janelle gave the menorah to Elvis; he later became aware of a photo of Elvis with the menorah.  Perhaps The King viewed it as a “good luck charm,” the name of one of his biggest hits.

“I was pretty upset with Janelle when I realized she might have given it to Elvis,” says Copen.  “Even after the funeral (McComb died in 2005) I looked throughout her house, but no menorah.  Gone.”

Elvis statue

A statue of Elvis in downtown Tupelo

But later, George heard that the family menorah had been found and was on display at the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum.  Indeed, much of the museum’s collection consists of gifts and mementos that Elvis had given Janelle over the years, which she donated to the museum.

So that’s where the Copen family menorah sits today, on display for the museum’s 50,000-100,000 annual visitors to view.

Copen says he’s honored that so many people have the chance to see a family heirloom, which he believes sends an important message of tolerance that Elvis embraced.

“Janelle wanted to show that Elvis liked all faiths,” says Copen.  “I would rather people see the menorah there at the museum than at my house.  Maybe this will help everybody appreciate each other and say, ‘I’m not just a Christian, or Jewish, or a Buddhist.  We are all one people.’”

Elvis was 13 when he and his parents left Tupelo for Memphis.  There, the Presleys lived downstairs from the family of Rabbi Alfred Fruchter of Beth El Emeth Congregation.  The rabbi’s son, Harold, now 65 and living in Maryland, told me the two families became good friends; Harold’s mother would often have coffee with Elvis’ mother Gladys.

Elvis with Fruchters

Elvis (far right) with two of the Fruchter children in Memphis in the early 1950s (photo courtesy of Harold Fruchter)

In 1954, Elvis recorded his first hit record, “That’s All Right,” at Memphis’ Sun Record Company.  But the Presleys didn’t own a record-player.  Harold says Elvis borrowed the Fruchter’s record-player so he could play the song for his parents.   

At one point, Elvis worked off-and-on for Rabbi Fruchter as a “Shabbos Goy,” meaning he would perform certain types of work that religious law prohibits Jews from doing on the Sabbath, like turning lights on and off.

“My parents never had even an inkling that Elvis may have been Jewish,” says Harold.  “If they would, they would never have considered asking him to be a ‘Shabbos goy.’”

When Elvis’ mother Gladys died in 1958, he made sure to put a Star of David on her headstone at a Memphis cemetery, in honor of his Jewish heritage.  After Elvis died, Gladys was reinterred at Graceland.  Her new gravestone, lacking Elvis’ attention, didn’t get a star.

Temple B'Nai Israel

Tupelo’s Temple B’Nai Israel

Toward the end of his career, there are photos of Elvis wearing a chai pendant during concert performances.  In fact, he was reportedly wearing both a chai and a cross the night he died.  In Memphis, he belonged to the Jewish Community Center and gave money to several Jewish organizations, including $150,000 to the Memphis Hebrew Academy.

“He was very close to the Jewish people, especially in Memphis,” says Copen.  “He always treated them very nicely and they treated him very nicely.”

It’s believed that “Colonel” Tom Parker, Elvis’ Dutch-born manager, didn’t want his client’s Jewish roots to become public knowledge, thinking it might be seen as a negative by some of the hordes of Elvis fans in the Bible Belt back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Following Shabbat services at Tupelo’s B’Nai Israel, I sat down with Marc Perler, 73, the synagogue’s lay leader (the temple doesn’t have a full-time rabbi), to learn more about Jewish life in the Deep South.  B’Nai Israel has a membership of only about 20 families, a number that has steadily declined over the years.

“We’re ageing out,” says Perler.  “We don’t have that many young people.  It’s the same in small towns everywhere.”

Still, Perler says the town of 38,000 people has been hospitable to its Jewish residents.  When the congregation’s first permanent structure was built in 1957, Perler says a number of Tupelo’s non-Jews donated money because they “thought it was important that Tupelo had a broad cross-section of people living here.”

B'Nai Israel Shabbat

Marc Perler leads Shabbat services at Tupelo’s Temple B’Nai Israel

And when a tornado destroyed a nearby Methodist church in 2014, Perler says B’Nai Israel – without hesitation — loaned out their facility so that their Christian neighbors would have a place to hold Sunday school.

“It was the right thing to do,” he says.  “I’d like to think they would do the same for us.”  He adds that despite the congregation’s attrition, “we’ve had no trouble being Jewish in small-town Mississippi.”

As for Tupelo’s favorite son, Perler recounts the story when he once met Elvis in Nashville at a recording studio in the early 1960s.  He says he was surprised when he later learned of Presley’s Jewish background.

“I thought it was cool,” he says. “It was like, ‘welcome to the club.’”

© 2018 Dan Fellner