Johnson City, Marion or Knoxville: Where did Mountain Dew begin?

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – JULY 22: Bottles of Mountain Dew are displayed in a cooler at Marina Supermarket on July 22, 2014 in San Francisco, California. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote on Tuesday to place a measure on the November ballot for a 2-cents-per-ounce soda tax. If the measure passes in the November election, tax proceeds would help finance nutrition, health, disease prevention and recreation programs. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A historic marker proclaiming Johnson City as the “home” of Mountain Dew sparked debate about the drink’s roots.

There’s no denying Mountain Dew’s Appalachian origins, according to curator and researcher Spenser Brenner. But claims of Mountain Dew’s “home” range from Johnson City to Knoxville to Marion and even North Carolina.

Marion community and economic development director Ken Heath said that honor belongs to Marion, Virginia. He said the final formula that was sold to Pepsi in the 1960s was created in Marion by Bill Jones of the Tip Corporation.

Brenner confirmed that Jones obtained the rights to Mountain Dew and sold it to Pepsi, but said any claims that he changed the final formula are unsubstantiated.

“(The claims) are not written down,” Brenner explained. “It’s a word-of-mouth record.”

“Mountain Dew: Hillbilly Collectables” by Dick Bridgforth offers an abridged history of the drink that credits each location as having a hand in the origin of one of the most popular sodas today.

READ MORE: Historical marker unveiled recognizing Johnson City as the home of Mountain Dew

The historic marker is placed on the corner of West Walnut and Cherokee.

The book notes Knoxville as the “birthplace” of Mountain Dew, Johnson City as where Dew “grew up,” North Carolina where Pepsi “met and dated” Mountain Dew, and credits Marion as the “guardian” of Mountain Dew.

The birthplace of Mountain Dew

Brenner, Heath and Bridgforth all agree on one thing – Mountain Dew began in Knoxville.

Heath said the first concoction was a chaser for hard liquor and Bridgforth’s book claims the first formula tasted “a lot like 7Up.”

The brothers credited for the creation are the Hartman brothers, Ally and Barney.

The name Mountain Dew started as a joke among friends, Bridgforth’s book says, until the brothers decided in 1948 that it might be a profitable joke. After a five-year battle with the patent office, the Moutain Dew trademark was granted in 1953, according to Bridgforth.

Brenner said that for a couple of years, the brothers couldn’t go much farther than private use of the product.

“They were Pepsi bottlers at the time,” he said. “They were not allowed to bottle it because of their contracts.”

Enter Charlie Gordon, Bill Bridgforth and Johnson City.

The home of Mountain Dew?

Brenner and Heath agree – the business at the time was like the Wild West.

The Hartman brothers needed to bottle their product. Charlie Gordon, who Bridgforth writes is from Marion, founded Tri-City Beverage in 1947.

Mountain Dew and Dr. Enuf are at the center of an exhibit at ETSU’s Reece Museum, “The Tri-City Beverage Story.”

“They came up with a deal to bottle the Mountain Dew beverage,” Brenner said.

Brenner said plant manager Bill Bridgforth (and the father of Dick Bridgforth, the author of the book cited in this article) is credited with creating the formula, derived from a formula he called “Tri-City Lemonade.”

. . . or is Marion the home of Mountain Dew?

After that, Bill Jones of Marion bought the rights to the drink and eventually sold them to Pepsi, sources agree.

Heath said Pepsi acknowledged Marion as the “Hometown of Old Mountain Dew” in the 1990s and that it is Jones’ formula that we know as the famous green soda today.

 “Jones spent months testing his very own formulas to finally come up with the caffeinated, carbonated, lemon-lime drink that really took off, and it was indisputably Jones’ formula that was the one sold to PepsiCo in 1964,” Heath, a Johnson City native, said.

Bridgforth’s book says Marion is the “guardian” of Mountain Dew – he writes that Jones “nursed the ailing Tip Corporation/Mountain Dew franchise and orchestrated the overall business success of Mountain Dew.”

An Appalachian drink and an Appalachian story

Brenner said without the Hartmans in Knoxville, Gordon and Bridgforth in Johnson City, and Jones in Marion, we wouldn’t have the Mountain Dew we know today.

“It’s an Appalachian drink, it was born and raised here, and its home was in southern Appalachia,” he said, adding, “Every one of those men who were involved are mentioned on that historical marker.”

Heath said the historical marker – placed on the corner of West Walnut Street and Cherokee Street – is in the wrong place and Marion deserves the distinction as Mountain Dew’s home.

“I’m proud of my (southwest Virginia), and truly believe we are the place of great, legendary businesses,” he said. “We just need to grow more of them, and that starts with making sure credit is given where it’s due.”

Mountain Dew’s home appears to have claims in several places, but one thing’s for certain – it’s Appalachian to the core.

“I consider this an Appalachian beverage and an Appalachian story,” Brenner said.

The history of Mountain Dew and Dr. Enuf will be on display at the Reece Museum as part of the “Tri-City Beverage Story” exhibit, which continues through Sept. 13.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that the exhibition at the Reece Museum runs through Sept. 30. It’s been corrected to Sept. 13.

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