Most of us growing up in Atlanta during the 1940s were familiar with the name Candler. It meant Coca-Cola, it meant wealth, and it meant all the mansions that dotted my Druid Hills neighborhood. In those days, Asa Candler, who founded the company that manufactured the famous beverage, was still considered an important figure from the city’s recent past. When he died in 1929, the Atlanta Constitution called him “perhaps the most widely known citizen Atlanta ever had.” Yet more than eighty years hence, his fame has been overshadowed by that of the product he produced and promoted. Few are aware that Candler was mayor of Atlanta during World War I, dominated the local real estate market, and provided the funds to transform a small college in Oxford, Georgia, into Emory University. Along the way, he developed a garden suburb, opened a major bank, and constructed Atlanta’s then-tallest skyscraper, which he duplicated in New York while building major commercial structures and manufacturing plants throughout the United States. In short, he was the South’s equivalent of Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller.
Asa Candler came from a farm in Villa Rica, Georgia, in many ways personifying Horatio Alger’s fictional rise from rags to riches. Yet, notwithstanding his later stories about boyhood struggles, Asa was no child of poverty. In fact, his family lived quite comfortably during the antebellum years. His father, Sam Candler—a farmer and merchant—owned several slaves, but his wealth was seriously depleted as a result of the Civil War. Since Sam never lived to see Asa become one of the area’s richest residents, he died thinking his eighth child was a failure, certainly in comparison to his prominent brothers. The oldest, Milton, was a Georgia lawyer, who served in the United States House of Representatives, and the second oldest, Zeke, was a lawyer and preacher in Mississippi. Sam Candler’s tenth son, Warren, was a bishop of the Southern Methodist Church and president of Emory College during the 1890s, becoming the first chancellor when Emory University opened in 1917. John, the last of Sam’s children, was a distinguished judge of the Georgia Superior Court and a justice of the state Supreme Court.
In contrast, Asa refused to go to college and abandoned plans for a medical career to become a drugstore clerk. Within a few years after coming to Atlanta, he opened his own pharmacy, and then in 1888 he visited a local soda fountain in search of a headache remedy and swallowed a patent medicine that changed his life. Although that drink had been concocted by an eccentric druggist named John S. “Doc” Pemberton, Asa Candler manipulated the formula in order to buy it, tinkering with it awhile before producing the syrup that he marketed to soda jerks throughout the South. During the next decade, he turned the tonic into a nationwide marketing phenomenon. But that progression was not a smooth climb from soda fountain to international giant. A series of court cases instigated by the federal government questioned the inclusion of cocaine and caffeine in the syrup, and indeed a small amount of the narcotic remained in the formula until the company was forced to remove it. After battling his accusers and imitators for several decades, Candler grew weary of managing a large corporation and distributed his stock among his five children, leaving him free to devote the remainder of his life to charities and his city.
Much of this tale is in the public record, but the personal life of Asa Candler and his children is not. His affectionate—if domineering—relationship with his wife, Lucy Elizabeth, produced four sons and one daughter, all of whom became prominent Atlantans in their own rights, spending their inherited fortunes to reflect their individual quirks. Asa himself was a generous but manipulative father, determined to mold the character of each child, while Lucy Elizabeth was typical of her era’s hardworking mother, countering her husband’s tough love with an overabundance of nurturing that provided a steadfast presence which kept her sons’ disputes from splitting the family apart.
In many ways, the five Candler offspring exemplified the family dynamics that attract psychologists and sociologists. The oldest son, Howard, was the family good boy, responsible, obedient, serious, and thrifty. First working as his father’s lackey at Coca-Cola, and after he and his siblings sold the company, he freely (though cautiously) meted out his dollars to build a showplace home, served on corporate boards, and continued his father’s support of Emory University. The second son, Asa Jr. was his older brother’s polar opposite. He romped through a world that Jay Gatsby would have envied, living in extravagant luxury on his Druid Hills estate, owning several private planes and yachts, entertaining lavishly, and infuriating the neighbors by opening a zoo on his property. But despite his eccentricities, Asa Jr. negotiated some of the city’s most lucrative real estate transactions, including development of the Atlanta airport (first known as Candler Field) and bringing the first Macy’s department store south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Next in line was the only girl, Lucy, the pretty, outgoing light of her father’s life. From her spoiled and over-indulged childhood, she emerged as the cheerful arbitrator of her often fractious brothers. While reigning as a leading doyen of Atlanta society, Lucy enjoyed her own brand of ’20s excesses, traveling extensively and supervising construction of her Italian-style mansion. Despite her sunny exterior, she suffered many personal tragedies: the loss of two children and two husbands, the second the victim of a brutal and controversial murder. Her next younger brother, Walter, was almost as flamboyant as Asa Jr., but instead of a zoo, he had a large racetrack on the grounds of his estate and captured the headlines during a highly publicized adulterous affair. The last Candler child, William, was the only quiet and modest one of the five siblings. A well-respected businessman, he spent his share of the Coca-Cola fortune to construct Atlanta’s Biltmore Hotel.
Weaving through the narrative is the remarkable growth of Atlanta and the Candler’s contributions to it. Commercial properties—from the beautiful Candler Building to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport—stand as testimonies to their dominance over the real estate market. And in Druid Hills, one of Atlanta’s first suburbs, numerous well-known landmarks remain, including Howard’s mansion, Callanwolde, and the campus of Emory University. Towering above all the family’s accomplishments, the International Coca-Cola complex shines as a dynamic reminder of Asa Candler’s once-dominant presence.