Chattanooga businessman and industrialist Benjamin F. Thomas pioneered the development of the Coca-Cola bottling industry in America. A native of Maysville, Kentucky, Thomas began his business career as a bank clerk, stone quarry operator, and manager of a hosiery mill. In 1887 he graduated from the University of Cincinnati law school and moved to Chattanooga at the encouragement of a fellow Cincinnati graduate, E. Y. Chapin. While serving in the Spanish-American War, Thomas was inspired by a popular bottled Cuban fruit drink with the idea of bottling a similar carbonated beverage in America. In 1899 he and partner Joseph Brown Whitehead convinced Asa Candler, president of the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, to give them the exclusive rights to bottle Coca-Cola, then widely available only as a drugstore fountain drink. John T. Lupton of Chattanooga became a third partner, and the first bottling plant opened later that summer.
As the business flourished, the partners focused their attention on the creation of franchise bottling companies. In 1900 they divided the United States into franchise territories. Thomas’s territory included most of the eastern United States from Chattanooga north and the Pacific coast states of California, Oregon, and Washington. In 1902 Thomas sold the Chattanooga bottling plant. His company, Coca-Cola Bottling Company (Thomas), supplied syrup to franchised bottlers across the country, in effect becoming the largest bottler of soft drinks in the world.
In 1894 Thomas married Anne Taylor Jones. Remaining childless, they invited Thomas’s teenage nephew, George Thomas Hunter, to join them in Chattanooga and groomed him to take over the bottling business.
Thomas was an important economic, civic, and social influence in Chattanooga. An early promoter of real estate development on Lookout Mountain, he helped organize what became American National Bank, as well as the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club. In later life, Thomas suffered from Bright’s disease. He died on June 26, 1914, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was buried in his hometown of Maysville.
DeSales Harrison, tprints on the Sands of Time: A History of Two Men and the Fulfillment of a Dream (1968); Ned L. Irwin, “Bottling Gold: Chattanoogas Coca-Cola Fortunes,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 51 (1992): 223-37