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Drink up: an unusual locally produced soda called Lake's Celery quenched Mississippians' thirsts for 60 years.

In her short story entitled "The Little Store," Eudora Welty recalled a part of her childhood days on North Congress Street in Jackson. The year of her remembrance was 1919, and the neighborhood store, located near where the George Street Grocery stands today, was owned by a man she called "Mr. Sessions." To a 10-year-old of 86 years ago, the little store was a world unto itself, and the anticipation of stepping inside was a thrill surpassed only by the joy of Christmas morning. To be able to enter the store and look wide-eyed at so many tempting treats was one thing, but having a nickel to spend on anything you wanted was the greatest feeling in the world. The choices of sweets, including Baby Ruths, Hershey bars, Goo-Goo Clusters, Tootsie Rolls, Cracker Jacks, and so many more in big-mouthed glass jars, were almost too much for a child to handle. In Miss Eudora's words, "If it seemed too hot for Cracker Jacks, I might get a cold drink. Mr. Sessions might have already stationed himself by the cold-drinks barrel, like a mind reader. Deep in ice water that looked black as ink, murky shapes that would come up as Coca-Colas, Orange Crushes, and various flavors of pop were all swimming around together. When you gave the word, Mr. Sessions plunged his bare arm in to the elbow and fished out your choice, first try. I favored a locally bottled concoction called Lake's Celery. (What else could it be called? It was made by a Mr. Lake out of celery. It was a popular drink here for years but was not known universally, as I found out when I arrived in New York and ordered one in the Astor bar.)"

For the best part of 60 years, the carbonated soft drink Lake's Celery was indeed a favorite of Jacksonians. It was introduced here by William Watts Lake, an Englishman who moved to Jackson in 1887, the year when U.S. President Grover Cleveland signed an order authorizing the return to the Southern states of captured Confederate flags. This act of closure by the president lasted for only one week, for as a result of protests by Union army veterans and Republican politicians, the order was canceled. It was also the year when former C.S.A. General Robert Lowry was beginning his second term as governor, when the capital city of our state was actually a capital town of only 3,000 people.

W.W. Lake and his wife Viola, a native of Monroe, Louisiana, carefully selected Jackson as a place to live and to introduce a carbonated beverage business. After buying the necessary equipment, Mr. Lake and his business partner, a Mr. Sample, established a bottling works under the name of Sample and Lake. The business prospered, and after only a couple of years, Mr. Lake purchased Mr. Sample's interest, renaming the firm the Jackson Bottling Works. This plant was originally located on the north side of what is now the first block of East Capitol Street, where later in 1913 the Majestic Theater was built, Today, this site is an open grassy plot adjacent to the One Jackson Place building. During these early days, the Lakes lived across the street, approximately where the Elite restaurant is now.

Well into the early 1960s, the Jackson Bottling Works enjoyed the distinction of being "the oldest soft drink business in the South." Historical writer Dr. William D. McCain noted in his two-volume work The Story of Jackson that "all ingredients used in making the drinks, with the exception of sugar, were manufactured in the plant; and all work was done by hand, including the washing of bottles with a mixture of washing powder and birdshot."

Owning and operating your own business is work, and owning and operating a bottling plant is WORK in capital letters. McCain's research revealed that "W.W. Lake grew up in an atmosphere of hard work and careful management" and that "idleness was not encouraged in the Lake household." His father was a successful truck farmer who specialized in growing hothouse vegetables, and it was into this environment that W.W. Lake was born in Lingwood, Norfolkshire, England, on November 24, 1859. In 1875, at the age of 16, the young Mr. Lake immigrated to America in search of an opportunity to make a better living.

Just why Mr. Lake chose to manufacture a carbonated drink based on celery and celery seed isn't known. What is known is that his drink blessed not only him but the entire city of Jackson for some 60 years. Today, there is only one soft drink in America still being produced that must be close to the consistency and taste of Lake's Celery. It is Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda, which is manufactured by the Canada Dry Bottling Company of College Point, New York. Advertised as a veggie lover's delight, this drink is infused with "extract of celery seed with other natural flavors."

Curious about the taste of the beverage, I called the company's toll-free number in New York and talked with a lady who said the drink wasn't to everyone's liking. She said it sold well to former east Europeans and in areas where there are large Jewish populations. "It is the beverage of choice to drink with pastrami or corned beef sandwiches on rye bread with mustard," she said. Apparently it is very "vegetable-y-tasting," sort of like V-8 juice but with a carbonated zing. On the Internet, one "reviewer of Cel-Ray" wrote that it tastes like ginger ale mixed with celery and that it even looks like ginger ale. I have asked quite a number of Jackson old-timers for their impression of Lake's Celery's taste. Many of them remembered the drink, but no one could remember what it tastes like.

By 1896, nine years into the bottling business, W.W. Lake needed help. He sent home to England for his nephew, Robert E. Lake, and before the year was out, 20-year old Robert was in Jackson working alongside his industrious uncle. By 1907, "W.W. Lake was vice-president of the Mississippi Foundry and Machine Company, vice-president of the Building and Loan Association, Director of the Merchants Bank and Cotton Compress, and president of the Crescent City Carbonate Company of New Orleans," wrote McCain.

After the death of William Watts Lake on July 19, 1912, the editor of the Clarion Ledger, R.H. Henry, who was a personal friend of Mr. Lake, described the entrepreneur as "a man of strict personal integrity. He was known far and wide as a man of his word, and by his probity of character he had won for himself the esteem and respect of all who knew him."

Following the death of Mr. Lake, his wife and nephew moved the Bottling Works to 135 East Capital Street. With the proceeds from the sale of their original property, they bought new equipment and launched a new line of fruit-flavored drinks. The business continued to thrive.

In 1921, Viola established the W.W. Lake Memorial Libraries in the Jackson Public Schools to honor her husband's memory. Over the next 25 years, the school libraries received more than 30,000 books through Mrs. Lake's generosity. And in 1951, Lake Elementary School, located at 472 Mount Vernon Avenue in Jackson, was named in her honor.

By 1924, Robert E. "Bob" Lake, then-president of the Jackson Bottling Company, helped the firm become the exclusive area distributor of Cascade Ginger Ale. Ginger ale had become a favorite year-round soft drink around the nation, and the Lake company did a big business with the new drink. The city's evening newspaper, the Jackson Daily News, was equally excited about Lake's good fortune, stating: "The most comprehensive advertising campaign ever placed in Jackson on a carbonated product has been given to the Daily News to cover the merits of the Cascade product."

The mid-1930s brought a new innovation to the bottling industry--painted-label bottles, known in the industry as applied color labels or ACLs. By 1937, Bob Lake had patented new colorful painted labels for his entire line of soft drinks. The ever-familiar Kelly green Lake's Celery bottles were changed to clear with a crisp blue and white label that bore the slogan, "A Great Drink." He also introduced at least three different root beer labels: red and yellow, red and white, and blue and white, which carried the claim "None Better" in bold print above the familiar Lake's script logo.

Robert E. Lake passed away in Jackson on August 7, 1962, ending an era of envied entrepreneurship. His death also brought to an end the Lake name. William Watts Lake and his wife Viola had no children. Bob Lake never married. Their memory, however, continues to live through their legacy of character and their love for the city and its youngest residents. Occasionally, too, Lake's Celery and other soft drink bottles are found by collectors. Some of these bottles are still fairly common, while others are indeed rare. Perhaps the reason some have survived is because they have always had a monetary value, especially to the company. In the early days, there was a 2-cent deposit on each bottle to help ensure the return of the container to defray the company's expenses. During the latter years of the enterprise, the deposit on the bottles was raised to S cents. Most of the time, the bottle cost was paid by the store owner to the company. This cost gave each store owner an incentive to collect as many empty bottles as possible. Once again, Miss Welty explained it best: "You drank on the premises, with feet set wide apart to miss the drip, and gave him back his bottle."

The Mississippi Antique Bottle Club will hold its 20th annual Antique Bottle and Collectible Show and Sale from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. January 15 at the Mississippi Fairgrounds on High Street in Jackson. The event will feature bottles, jugs, fruit jars, advertising items, tabletop antiques, Civil War and Indian relics, and more. For details, call 601/267-7128.
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Title Annotation:Looking Back
Author:Cooper, Forrest Lamar
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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