C.A. Derr & Company – The Oldest and Only Continuous Soda Bottling Plant in Indiana
The First 100 Years
Derr’s Inc., which was for many years, the oldest and only continuous bottling plant in Indiana, began operation in 1889. Charles Derr, the last owner, represented the third generation of the Derr Family to operate the business, which was founded by his grandfather; John Derr, Sr.
When first established the business was known as John Derr & Sons, then Boonville Bottling Works. His sons, John Derr, Jr. and Robert Derr were with the original firm. In 1910, John Jr. and Robert, along with their brothers, Albert C. Derr and Frank Derr took over the business calling it Derr Brothers until 1962. Albert’s son, Charles, was the owner and manager, under the name Derr’s Inc., until the business closed in 1992.
When John Derr first started his business in Boonville, IN, there were no lights, plumbing, motors or water system. Everything was done by hand. Water, necessary in making drinks, was pumped out of a well by hand. The firm operated during the period when the old spring stopper was used. First, the stopper was pushed into the bottle, and then a rubber disc on the end was forced against the opening from the inside to close the bottle. To get the liquid out of the bottle it was necessary to push against the spring and the liquid would “pop” out of the bottle. This action led to the nickname “Pop” for the drink. Because of the method used it took an average of 10 minutes to fill a case of 24 bottles. Washing out the bottles as they were returned was also a never-ending job.
This business operated in the beginning with horses and wagons. About the turn of the century the firm brought to town one of the first trucks. It was a two-cylinder Buick with solid tires and chain drive. Cigars were also made at that time. Brands such as Derr’s Special and Opera House were made and sold there. Over the years the business had seen many changes. Trucks replaced horses for deliveries of products to retailers in Warrick, Pike and Spencer Counties in Indiana. Eventually, bottling was contracted out to an Evansville firm.
One thing that had not changed was the method and recipe used to make the syrups for Derr’s products. The earliest formulas were developed by a trial and error method by John Derr, Sr. and expanded by his son, Albert.
The recipes for the syrups have always been a guarded family secret. Some of the original soft drinks included Derr’s Coke, Derr’s Dry, Strawberry, Orange, Orange Pineapple, Grape, Cream Soda, and Root Beer, but there were many others. Derr’s Dry and Derr’s Strawberry were always two favorites.
In addition to soft drink syrups, flavored syrups were made and sold to be put over iced “Snow Cones”, which were sold at fairs and carnivals, as well as for making punch drinks by mixing the syrup with water. There were also flavors for ice cream. Finally, the business offered a broad line of extracts and colors for use in baking. The most popular was Derr’s Vanilla Extract, which was always considered one of the best vanilla extracts on the market.
When the business was closed in 1992, Derr’s Strawberry and Derr’s Dry were the only soft drinks still being bottled, but all the other formulas were still used in manufacturing fountain syrups, flavors, and extracts.
The In Between Years
It was a sad day when the doors closed for the last time after 106 years in business. People talked about how they used to love the drinks on a hot summer day and longed for that taste again. Members of the Derr Family were each busy with their lives and Charles Derr was enjoying his retirement, but in the back of many minds, there was always the question of how to “restart” the business. Charles Derr’s nephew, Joe Derr, Jr and Charles’ son, John Derr, spent many hours talking with Charles about how to go about doing so, ensuring, in particular, that the product formulas were documented and understood. Barb Byers, one of Charles’ daughters who had been involved with the business, joined them in this effort. In 2005, a search was begun to find suppliers of certain natural oils and flavors that were key ingredients for the original formulas.
A New Beginning
Then in 2008, Joe Derr, Jr. and John Derr took the lead by forming a new company under the name of C. A. Derr and Company. Pauline Hull Derr, Charles’ widow, gifted the formulas over to the company. The children of Charles and Pauline; John Derr, Pattie Derr Keys, Betty Derr McAlpin, Jane Derr Voorhies, Barb Derr Byers, and Sharon Derr Raven along with Charles’ nephew, Joe Derr, Jr., are on the Board of Directors. Now, a fourth generation of the Derr family is bringing the products to customers…new and old…using the same formulas that have proven successful for over 100 years.
If you remember Derr’s Soda from your youth, we’d love to hear your memories. If you’d like to experiencing the joy of Derr’s Sodas for the first time, stop by Fizz Fest 2018.
“Derr’s Soda…A Family Tradition for Over 100 Years!”