A sweet swig of history

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Salem Museum Director John Long is thrilled about the museum’s recently donated Dixie Flip syrup dispenser. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett.
Salem Museum Director John Long is thrilled about the museum’s recently donated Dixie Flip syrup dispenser. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett.
In 1916, soda was a big business in the small town of Salem.

The King-Cola headquarters, which was a part of the Virginia Beverage Corporation, was located at 211 East Main Street. The company distributed its product to more than 15 states across the country.

In 1917, the company introduced Dixie Flip, which was advertised as “The Wonder Drink.” The drink was packaged as a white-grape syrup, and offered at Salem soda fountains, where it was mixed.

Now, one of the last remaining Dixie Flip syrup dispensers has found its permanent home at the Salem Museum, thanks to a generous donation by William T. Norris, who grew up in a Victorian house on Broad Street with his parents and grandmother.

“I grew up there playing around the basement and the outbuildings, and this syrup dispenser was in the basement stored,” Norris said.

The soda company is long gone. It went bankrupt in 1923, and although the exact reasons behind its downfall are unknown, many assume that competition from The Coca-Cola Company played a factor. The two companies fought over the use over the “Cola” name, and it is speculated that Coca-Cola claimed infringement on the company.

Norris is a retired VA Medical Center physician, and he and his wife, Laura, settled into a new Salem home in 1969, after his parents passed away.

“When we moved to the house, we brought along a lot of the artifacts, not knowing what some of them were,” he said. “I guess in the last few years, we got interested in it and started researching.”

Since then, the antique had been collecting dust in their basement along with other knickknacks that previously belonged to his grandfather. Though fragile, the porcelain dispenser survived moves and years of storage without a scratch.

Norris’ grandfather was also a physician in Salem. He isn’t exactly sure how his grandfather acquired the dispenser, but since he worked as a pharmacist before becoming a doctor, he believes it may have belonged to a pharmacy he worked at.

Norris said donating the dispenser to the museum was an easy decision to make, because he wanted to make sure it stayed in Salem.

“It’s an interesting piece of Salem history,” he said. “If you let it get out of town, and get in the hands of a collector, there’s no telling where it would wind up.”

Salem Museum Director John Long will be leaving for a position with the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford next week, which is why Norris said he made the donation now.

“We love preserving tangible reminders of forgotten chapters of our local past,” said Long. “Probably no one alive remembers Dixie Flip, but now future generations will be able to experience that interesting bit of history.”

The dispenser, now almost a century old, will serve as a reminder of a simpler time, when a soda bar could be found inside every local pharmacy.

“You can’t find a soda fountain anymore. They’re all gone, except for Brooks-Byrd,” Norris said. “I remember in my day, people would go down and get a hand-pulled coke. People don’t realize things go away while you’re looking around. You don’t realize something’s gone until it’s gone.”