The modern-day soft-drink industry, with the familiar brands of Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper, and Pepsi, can trace its beginnings to the post-Civil War nineteenth century. Star Bottling Works is Houston's contribution to the story of soft drinks.
The Star Bottling Works opened at the corner of Congress Avenue and Fannin Street in 1880. The proprietor, druggist Robert Cotter, had come to Texas from his native England in the late 1860s. Cotter was associated with Houston druggist Matthias D. Conklin, who worked for R. F. George and Company. Cotter took over the George pharmacy (located at 76 Main Street) and started the R. Cotter and Company in 1870. By 1879 Cotter, with his partner Matthias Conklin, sold an assortment of medicinal treatments of their own making, including such products as IXL Chill Cure, IXL Sarsaparilla, and IXL Liver Pills, in addition to items for sale, including Pure Extract Jamaica Ginger and Triumph Mexican Chewing Gum. With the bottling company, Cotter also branched out into drinks such as soda, ginger ale, and sarsaparilla (or “sasparilla,” as it was called in the “Old West”).
W. D. Cleveland, a local grocer, took an interest in the start-up beverage enterprise and became president of Star Bottling Works in 1882. Robert Cotter served as vice president and general manager of manufacturing operations. However, within two years Houston contractor August Baumbach acquired the company. In 1884 the Star Bottling Works moved into its new factory on the northwest corner of Commerce Avenue and San Jacinto Street with the intent to become Houston’s premier soft drink bottling company. In the June 8, 1884, edition of the Galveston Daily News, the Star Bottling Works announced that it was in “full blast and prepared to execute all orders for Soda Water, Sarsaparilla, Belfast Ginger Ale, Essences of Peppermint and Ginger: Vichy. Seltzer, and Syrups of all flavors.”
Baumbach, born in Hamburg, Germany, about 1852, immigrated to the United States in 1871 and arrived in Houston about 1878. He worked as a brick mason but eventually established himself as a general contractor by the time he acquired the Star Bottling Works. Baumbach supervised the building of brick structures in Houston and throughout Texas, including the construction of the Chambers County Courthouse in Wallisville and the Falls County Courthouse in Marlin (both in 1886). His projects also included a brick assembly hall at the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College (1889) as well as an addition to the truck house of the fire department on the corner of Prairie Avenue and San Jacinto Street in Houston (1894).
At the time that Star Bottling Works went “full blast” in its operations, the soft-drink industry was making significant advances in emerging as a viable competitive business and presenting consumers a variety of new products. Pharmacist Charles Alderton invented Dr Pepper in Waco in 1885. Coca-Cola, invented by John Pemberton, was first sold to the public in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1886. The efforts of local bottlers to introduce new beverages inspired fierce competition. In the case of Houston’s Star Bottling Works, the drive to push more products resulted in a lawsuit by the Moxie Nerve Food Company of Maine. In February 1887 Moxie Nerve Food Company filed a bill of injunction against August Baumbach and the Star Bottling Works in the U. S. Circuit Court. The Maine company alleged that Star Bottling was fraudulently manufacturing a beverage similar to their product. Moxie claimed that Baumbach’s beverage, called “Standard Nerve Food,” used similar ingredients contained in a similar bottle, with a similar label and packing, that infringed upon their trademarked drink. On July 11, 1887, in a landmark case, the court ordered Baumbach and Star Bottling Works to cease the trademark infringement against the Moxie Nerve Food Company.
Despite this setback, Star Bottling Works continued its operations. At the same time, Baumbach was still a general contractor and managing both businesses from his office in the Star Bottling Works factory on Commerce Avenue. Two years later, however, in 1889, he transferred management of the bottling company to August Bonner.
Bonner, an Italian immigrant, had arrived in Houston about 1878 and worked as a bartender until he opened his own establishment, the First and Last Chance Saloon, on Milam Street in 1880. He was first employed with Star Bottling about 1886 and by 1889 had worked his way up to management of the company. In 1890 he became a partner with Baumbach in Star Bottling. August Bonner became the sole proprietor of the Star Bottling Works in 1892 as the company expanded its business. He continued to run the Star Bottling Works at the same location (designated as 1117–1119 Commerce Avenue in the new street numbering system of 1892) until his death on August 20, 1896. Bonner took a lethal dose of morphine and died at his boarding house.
In early 1897 Henry H. Kuhlman bought the Star Bottling Works from the Bonner estate. In 1900 Kuhlman moved the plant across the street to 1216–1220 Commerce Avenue. The company was subsequently sold to G. Geaccone about 1902, and the Star Bottling Works was moved to 20 NE Crawford Avenue at the corner of Magnolia Street in 1903. Geaccone relocated the factory again (to 1102 Wood Street at corner of Vine Street) in 1908 and sold the company to Joseph R. Navarro, an Italian immigrant, in 1910. Navarro, with his partner M. Lamana, increased the product line to include Mignon Limon splits as well as the soda fountain syrup Jersey Creme, from the Jersey Creme Company of Fort Worth.
In 1915 the Star Bottling Works, which promoted itself as the “Oldest Manufacturers of Soda Water in Houston,” moved to a new facility at 1010 N. San Jacinto Street. Joseph Navarro ran the company at this location until his tragic death on June 23, 1932, when an armed assailant shot Navarro at his home while he, his wife, and daughter sat on the front porch. His son Roxie Navarro, the bookkeeper for the company, became the proprietor and manager of Star Bottling Works until it closed in 1962.