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Arts and Culture

On the Map explores diner that doubles as Coke Museum

130 years of marketing Coca Cola has created some memorable tag lines and a lot of swag.

In the small town of Grayling, some of that swag is on display.  

Our On the Map series takes us to the heart of downtown Grayling, to Dawson and Stevens Classic 50’s Diner & Soda Fountain.  It’s a diner -slash- museum with over 18-thousand Coca-Cola artifacts.

 

There are a couple of ways collections are obtained. Some collectors accumulate items over time. Others buy in bulk, and then maybe purchase more pieces along the way.

The Coca Cola collection in Grayling has experienced both. It was born 30 years ago... Bill Hicks was clearing away some brush at a hunting lodge, and he found several buried coke bottles. Over the next decade-plus, it grew into a massive collection, which he displayed in his basement.

Enter, Bill Gannon. He owns a 50’s diner in downtown Grayling, where the collection is housed now

When he first saw the coke memorabilia in Hick’s basement, well the way he tells it,  it perfectly encapsulated the old adage, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“It was just absolutely beautiful I mean it was just the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. Coke everywhere everything was red everything was coke, I mean the carpet was Coca-Cola the ceilings the walls were Coca-Cola everything was Coca-Cola and I thought man this is so cool.”

Gannon says he only intended on buying a few bottles to decorate his diner, but Hicks had other plans.

"He looked me right in the eye and he says you know what, I’m going to do you one better than that. I go what’s that? He says I’m going to sell you the whole entire museum.”

Gannon says he loved the idea, even after some of his friends advised him against buying the collection. You see, Hicks had told Gannon, in a typical year his basement-museum got about ten-thousand visitors, and that was only being open on weekends during the summer. Did we mention, Gannon is a businessman?

“And I said you know, if I could get ten thousand people to come to the diner to see the museum the same people that he would attract up there, and every one of them bought a milkshake, hamburger and french fries, to me that’s a good deal!”

So Gannon took the “buy it and they will come” approach to collecting. He says he doesn’t have room to display all of the memorabilia at once, so he keeps some in storage and rotates the display quarterly.

Gannon claims to have the largest Coca-Cola collection in northern Michigan. I asked him if he thought the museum attracted more people to the diner, he seemed confident it did.

“No question about it, we have people come here from all over the country. Russia, Japan, all over the world they come here. I mean they don’t just come here for the Bottle Cap Museum but if they’re coming they make this part of their, one of their stops.”

Gannon says the museum originally had a different name.

“Bill Hicks originally wanted to call it the Coca-Cola Museum, well Coca-Cola doesn’t take that. It’s not a Coca-Cola museum, even though everything is Coke, you don’t have the right to use Coca-Cola. So he changed it to the Bottle Cap Museum that’s why it’s called the Bottlecap Museum and not Coca-Cola.”

Gannon says the name often confuses people, they think, understandably so, that the museum is only bottle caps. The collection does contain some 25-thousand Coca-Cola caps.

Gannon says the collection was around eight thousand pieces when he bought it in 2004, since then it’s more than doubled, he’s added ten thousand pieces.

Gannon says there were other people interested in buying pieces of the collection from Bill Hicks, but Hicks had his mind made up.

“He said well I had a lot of people that wanted to buy it, but they wanted to buy one piece two piece three piece and then it was gone and it came out of the collection and what are you going to do. You, (me) are going to buy the whole thing and you’re going to put it in a museum setting, in a diner, a half hour drive from my house. If I get lonesome and I want to see my collection I just come to the diner, I couldn’t be any happier.”

Gannon says his collection wouldn’t be complete without the largest piece, something to really drive the collection home, a Coca-Cola truck. He found a man selling one in Minnesota. It was a bit of a fixer-upper.

“He found this truck in the woods, and there was a tree growing through the engine. So he brought it back to his house, took it apart, because it was in the woods and the tree was going through the motor and put it all back together and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever want to see.”

Bill Gannon has owned his Coca Cola collection for 13 years. He told me he has no plans right now on retiring or selling the collection.

While Grayling might seem like a place to stop off and get gas on a roadtrip, places like Dawson and Stevens Classic 50’s Diner & Soda Fountain are reminders of the culture and nostalgia that can be found in smaller Michigan communities. It’s one-of-a-kind establishments like these that put Grayling, Michigan, On the Map.