Club celebrates the 'deliciously different' drink
Photo by Erin Sanchez
their hobby for
brand history, collectables
By Jessica Schrader
C & G Staff Writer
Its potent bubbles are known to induce sneezing, and many believe it can cure an upset stomach.
Although the nation’s oldest soda is no longer available for 5-cent tastes fresh from its old Woodward Avenue riverfront bottler, Vernor’s ginger ale lives on as “Detroit’s drink” in the hearts — and spare bedrooms, basements and garages — of those who love it most.
The basement of Keith Wunderlich’s Troy home is something of a shrine to the trademarked “deliciously different” drink. Hundreds of old bottles, dozens of advertising signs, clocks and other collectables — even a Vernor’s pop machine given to him by the soda’s new owner — fill the space with a green and yellow glow.
Wunderlich has been collecting Vernor’s memorabilia for about 30 years, ever since he found a box of old bottles in his parents’ garage.
“I asked if I could have them, and that’s when my Vernor’s collection began,” said the assistant superintendent for L’Anse Creuse Public Schools, who prior to his finding was collecting everything related to Detroit history. “I’ve always enjoyed Detroit history, and the Detroit products.”
Old company newsletters, annual stock reports and notes on Vernor’s letterhead in Wunderlich’s collection help tell the story of a company that all started with a secret barrel in the pharmacy of young James Vernor.
As the story goes, Vernor left a mixture of ginger, vanilla and other spices in an oak barrel in his Detroit pharmacy when he was called off to the Civil War in 1862. When he returned after four years, he found the beverage inside had been transformed by the wood’s aging process and took on a uniquely zesty flavor. His new ginger ale soon became a local favorite, making the Vernor’s company a Detroit staple.
The Vernor family sold the company to an investment group in 1966, then it changed hands a number of times before taking its current place with Texas-based Cadbury Schweppes. But the historical trail left by the company is of great interest to many collectors, both in and out of the Detroit area.
Wunderlich is bringing collectors like himself together in a new club he recently started. The Vernor’s Ginger Ale Collectors Club started late last year and already has more than a dozen members from across the country and Canada.
“So far, so good,” he said of the club, which aims to give enthusiasts the opportunity to share Vernor’s history, learn more about the company and study the variety of collectibles available. The club Web site features a listing of items for sale and wanted, and Wunderlich is preparing a quarterly newsletter that will include photos and historical information.
“We all can learn from each other,” said Wunderlich, who also envisions a summer meet-up for the club. “We can learn even more about our hobby together.”
Wunderlich’s hobby has made him well known among those associated with the brand. He was invited to a Vernor’s employee reunion five years ago, and he does presentations on the topic for the Detroit Historical Museum. The Vernor’s family even visited his home a few years back, and Cadbury Schweppes turned to Wunderlich’s basement when they were researching Vernor’s history for a nostalgic bottle for the year 2000.
“They wanted to see the history of Vernor’s, and I have a better history of Vernor’s than they do,” he laughed.
Mike Novak, of Blissfield, Mich., is part of the new club. A collector of Vernor’s memorabilia for the past 15 years, Novak said he has a couple hundred bottles and countless other items that fill his garage.
“Not as much as Keith does, though,” said Novak, who met Wunderlich in an eBay bidding war for something Vernor’s-related. Now the two notify each other when they see something for which the other is looking. “There’s only a few people that collect exclusively Vernor’s, so it’s neat to see other people’s stuff that they have and hear other people’s stories.”
Despite his hobby, Novak said he doesn’t drink much pop. When he does, though, “it’s Vernor’s,” he said. In fact, Novak has a special way of preparing the drink that he learned from an old recipe book the Vernor’s Company used to put out.
“You put (Vernor’s) on a stove in a pan. It’ll sizzle; then you throw in some lemon and a cinnamon stick,” he said. “It’s great.”
Wunderlich would have to agree: “Oh, I love Vernor’s. I love it.”