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The Best Part of the Rural Arizona Workday: “Club” and a Coke

At 10:00 am and again at 2:00 pm, every day, Monday through Friday, “Club” was held next to the Coke machine at the corner gas station in rural downtown Thatcher, Arizona, owned and hosted by my grandfather Royal Grant Woods, or as I knew him, Papa. All of the important men of Thatcher knew about it and attended as often as they could. No one is quite sure how “Club” started, and it never developed any particular purpose other than a chance for the local men in town to sit down together over an ice-cold Coke. Every morning and every afternoon, these old friends would discuss the day’s events, tell tall tales, and share their social calendars. If anyone ever had a problem or an important decision to make, surely it could be solved at “Club”, over a 10-cent bottle of Coke. I’m sure many things changed throughout the years as time passed on in rural Thatcher, but one thing was constant: the Coke machine.

Beginning in 1950, the Vendo company of Kansas City, Missouri began making Coke Vending Machines to supply the thirsty masses. From 1955 to 1958, they made the Vendo H81 Coke Machine, which holds up to 81 of the 8oz Coke bottles made of thick glass. The “H” in the name meant that the machine was an upright, multi-drink, coin operated machine that used nickels or dimes. This size vending machine was specifically made for small to medium sized vending needs, a more manageable size than the larger Vendo machines they manufactured.

In 1955, the Vendo H81A Coke Machine was produced in that familiar bright Coke-red coloring with white lettering and a small front mounted coin entry box. The vending door had a plastic medallion that read “Have a Coke”. This was the first machine intended to service the smaller need vendors.

The next year in ‘56, the Vendo H81 Coke Machines were updated with a new and fresh looking “Dupont Iceberg White” stripe across the top 12 inches of the machine, with Coke-red lettering and shiny metallic trim. This was the new Vendo H81B. From 1956 to 1958, all Vendo H81B Coke machines had this two-tone look. Some of the monotone Vendo H81A’s were even brought back to repaint in the newer look of the H81B’s.

One of those fresh-looking Vendo H81B Coke Machines ended up in my Grandfather’s Union 76 Service Station on the corner of Stadium and Main Street in Thatcher, Arizona, located in the Gila Valley. It was this model that was there to serve the “Club” needs and seemed to act as a gathering point for Thatcher, Arizona. Papa was a mechanic and small business owner who loved his Coke and he loved the machine that it came out of. He strategically positioned it in front of the Service Station so that customers and friends could stop by anytime they wanted, and for a dime, could get the original recipe, real sugar, Coke in an 8-ounce glass bottle.

My Papa standing by one of the coke machines in front of his store.

As a boy, I remember that working the front dispensing mechanism was a bit tricky for me. I had to remember to have one hand on the Coke bottle neck while the other inserted the dime and pulled the lever. If this was not coordinated in a timely fashion, the machine might lock up the bottle before I had a chance to pull it free from the machine. In such an emergency, Papa would take a break from rebuilding a carburetor and use his machine key to salvage the situation. Having the key to the machine meant solving all soda-related problems as well as having a ready source of handfuls of coins.

The Vendo H81B Coke Machine pre-restoration

The Vendo H81B Coke Machine post-restoration in its current state

After my Papa passed, I was fortunate to inherit the old Vendo H81B. The paint was severely faded from decades of being out in the weather. The insulation in the box was poor, the coin mechanism nonfunctional, and the cooling compressor worn out. Since this Coke Machine had such memories for me, I decided to rebuild and repaint it to look and work like new. The cost was not insignificant, but the result is a beautiful and fully functional Coke Machine that looks as fine as it did in 1956. Papa’s legacy lives on, and my family enjoys the little 8oz bottles of ice-cold Coke in his memory. Now if I can only convince some of my friends to stop by the house every day, for a new “Club” in the middle of the day. Oh well, maybe after we all retire.

To watch a video and see a tour of the machine, check out our YouTube video!

OR, check out the audio on our Podcast!


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