Union City Coca-Cola’s name synonymous with community support

Union City Coca-Cola’s name synonymous with community support
Special Features Editor
When CornFest activities get into full swing over the next few days, the many opportunities for family-centered fun will be possible because of sponsors within the area. Chief among these is Union City Coca-Cola, which is the Sustaining Premier sponsor.
“Our support began with Fall Fest years ago and we have been a major contributor to CornFest since it came into being,” says Richard Graham, who is operations manager for the family-owned business which began in Union City in 1909.
Coke products are on the menu for the Tyson Free Family Feed, set for Sept. 15 adjacent to Kiwanis Park on East Church Street in Union City. They will also be provided free for children taking part in the Chalk Art activities Thursday along South First Street in the downtown Union City area. 
A Coke team is in the bed-making business in preparation for the CornFest bed race, which will take place Sept. 15 along East Church Street from First to Perkins streets, and Coca-Cola Cookers have been part of the annual CornFest “Corn”test event in the past.
This is all in addition to behind-the-scenes financial support for the celebration.
As is the case with many family-owned businesses, it can sometimes be a challenge to determine precisely which entity is behind a community effort, but the Graham family’s long tradition of boosting efforts through the utilization of their company’s product makes the distinction unnecessary in this instance.
Athletic score boards at Union City, Obion County Central and South Fulton high schools and at middle schools in the Obion County School System are there courtesy of the Graham family business. Classrooms in the school systems also receive free calendars and free printing for their sports schedules, plus some school events benefit from receiving free product from the local company.
When local schools are looking to raise funds, the sale of that product is one of the easiest methods available, according to Graham, who said the company not only provides the product to the schools at a reduced rate but also makes the process as simple as possible for those raising the funds. The local Coke plant simply sends a loaded truck to a location designated by the fund raisers and allows customers who have placed orders to come and pick up their selections. The fund raisers don’t have to make deliveries or be concerned about spoilage or storage, he pointed out.
Band programs for high school students benefit from the annual E.W. James band supper each year, and Coke product is always a part of that effort. In addition, the family and company have contributed to efforts to buy new band uniforms and to help provide free books to preschoolers through the Obion County Reading Railroad initiative.
When students graduate from high schools in Obion County, many of them go on to higher education courtesy of the Union City Rotary Club scholarship program, which was initiated by Graham’s grandfather, the late Hardy Graham. The Graham family also provides five scholarships through the program each year.
Several years ago, when the former Westover School was still in the business of educating students, Hardy Graham — who was Union City mayor from 1950-58 — added two classrooms to that structure. He also made sure there was a heating system in place when Union City residents built a new high school — now Union City Middle School — more than 50 years ago. He personally dug the first hole for a light pole to brighten up the track at the new campus soon thereafter and was a hands-on citizen when it came time to spread cinders on what was then a brand new track.
Faculty and students at the University of Tennessee at Martin have also benefited from the Graham family’s generosity and named the UTM football field site Hardy Graham Stadium.
As attorney for the executor of the Vernon Verhine estate, and later as executor for the Fern Verhine estate, Graham used his influence and interest in the future of the community to ensure citizens of Union City would benefit. Thanks to funds involved in the estates of the childless couple, many UCHS graduates receive impressive scholarships and several local initiatives — focusing on children and youth — have been underwritten.
Hardy Graham also made sure there was a swimming pool at Poplar Meadows Country Club and expanded the former Grove Creek Park property on the city’s east side by the donation of land which today accommodates soccer fields and a space for flying model airplanes. The park was renamed in the family’s honor.
When it comes to other community celebrations, the Graham family and Coca-Cola rise to the occasion again, annual purchasing both Grand Champions and less exalted animals in the annual youth livestock sales. They also provide an eye-catching tractor and trailer for runs in local Christmas parades and they get involved in the neighboring Weakley County Soybean Festival.
Coke’s local history
Coca-Cola has been part of Obion County and the surrounding area since 1909 when Hugh “Coca-Cola” Smith started the local bottling company at a location on South Division Street. Smith was the uncle of the late Cora (Poindexter) Graham from Mississippi. Her father started Meridian, Miss., Coca-Cola in 1904 and Smith, his brother-in-law, soon became involved in the business. He bought the Union City territory and moved here with his wife, continuing to run the enterprise until his death during the early years of World War II. His wife then kept the business going until her death in 1945.
A young Cora Poindexter frequently visited her aunt and uncle in Union City, so she was familiar with the area. When she and Hardy Graham married, they moved to this area. Graham soon took up bookkeeping responsibilities for Mrs. Smith, whose thriving business by that time included plants in Martin, Dyersburg, Hickman, Ky., and Fulton, as well.
When Mrs. Smith died, it was necessary to sell the business because of the exorbitant death tax attached to it, and Hardy and Cora Graham and her sister and brother-in-law purchased the facilities in Union City and Martin and moved to the area to manage them properly. In the late 1960s, they took on the Hickman plant, as well. Since that time, both the Martin and Hickman plants have closed.
In addition to Coke products, the Graham family took on the bottling of 7-Up for almost 30 years in the latter part of the 20th century.
The Grahams were the parents of two sons, Hardy and Newell. Hardy returned to Mississippi to manage business interests there and Newell remained in Union City.
He became involved in the family business after getting his education and serving his country in the U.S. Navy and he and his wife, Betty, also became the parents of two sons – Richard and Stanford.
Newell Graham is the majority owner of the company that employs 25 people and is CEO-owner, functioning as the managing director of the LLC with his brother. His family are all dedicated Coke fans, with Richard and his wife, Anna, now raising a fourth generation of Coca-Cola Grahams.
The local plant, with Rick Larson as sales manager, ceased operation as a bottler three years ago and is, today, a distribution center for the product. It is one of only 69 Coca-Cola ownership groups left in the country.
“We plan on being here another 100 years,” Newell Graham said.
Obion Countians will benefit from that commitment, if the past is any indication.
Published in The Messenger 9.7.12

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