James L. Thornton came to Marion in 1881 and opened a photograph gallery.(2) In 1888 he purchased the mercantile business owned by Iron & Neighbors, and named it J. L. Thornton & Co.(2) He built a new building for his businesses on Main Street, at the location where the former J. C. Penny’s is located, in 1892, and closed his photography business in 1894.(2) Thornton established the Marion Bottling Works in the portion of his mercantile building that once housed his photography establishment in the year 1905.(2)

In 1905 soft drink bottling was still in its infancy and had been seeing an upswing since the introduction of the Hutchinson closure bottle in the late 1800’s. The Hutchinson bottle had a rubber gasket on a thick formed wire which was inserted in the bottle, and then pulled up to seal the bottle after the bottle was hand filled by the bottler. When the customer wanted to open the bottle they would force the stopper into the bottle with a blow of their hand which had the assembly falling into their drink taking any contamination with it. This would be replaced by the bottle cap that we know today not too long after 1905 due to these sanitary issues.

Bertram B. Thornton, Thornton’s son, delivered their products to local merchants using a wheel barrel; however, a good portion of their business was shipping their product via the railroad.(1) While little is known about exactly what flavors they were bottling early on, we can assume that for the most part they were bottling basic soda flavors such as ginger ale, orange, grape, lemon etc. In 1910 there was a listing in the Annual Report of the Diary and Food Commissioner of Virginia of a cola that they tested from the company which they called out as Genuine Cola, and found that it was “cola as claimed” leaving me to assume that this was the name of the cola they tested.(3)

By 1914 they are producing two hundred and fifty crates of bottled beverages a day, and had become one of the best equipped operations in the state and having been enlarged from its original size.(2) The plant is being fed water from the town’s own springs about four miles from the plant.(2) J. L. Thornton travelled and sold his products while Bertram was in charge of the factory.(2) Bertram himself was actually employed by the Lemon Kola Bottling Company of Roanoke for some time prior to this article, and enjoyed the distinction of being the first to bottle the brand.(2) This means he had been working for them at least as far back as 1912. There was much hope for Lemon Kola to be able to take a piece of Coca-Cola’s business at the time; however, Coca-Cola actively sued anyone they felt remotely infringed upon their trademark even by just using the name cola or any variation of the term.

Unfortunately James L. Thornton wouldn’t see the end of the year 1914, it is claimed that he was shot during a scuffle with a tax collector in his business.(1) Bertram B. Thornton, and his mother, would continue to operate the bottling plant after his death.(1) They appear to be bottling the Orange Whistle brand in 1916. The Lemon Kola Sales Agency of Roanoke was dissolved in 1917, but a new brand released by the Virginia Beverage Corporation of Roanoke and Salem VA was on the rise, King Cola was its name. Of course this would be the new leader brand for the Marion Bottling Works. In 1919 the company moved to the former Rye Valley Rail Road station near the corner of what is now Chatham Hill Road and East Chilhowie Street.(4) It is possible that the Thorntons acquired the franchise to bottle Orange Crush before they sold the company to B. Scott Sprinkle and N. E. Robinson, two World War I veterans, in 1922.(1)

James L. Thornton in early 1914

From the collection of Charlie Barnette, photo by Joseph Lee
Hutchinson bottle from the Marion Bottling Works of Marion, VA

early crown top bottle from the Marion Bottling Works of Marion, VA

Bottle from the collection of Tommy Fouch, photo by Joseph Lee
6oz Marion Bottling Works slug plate bottle

a later 6oz Marion Bottling Works bottle

a Marion Bottling Works Lemon Kola bottle

Orange Whistle ad from May 26, 1916

6 1/2oz King Cola Bottle from the Marion Bottling Works

This page is only part of a much larger site. To see the rest then just click TAZEWELL-ORANGE.COM and the contents on this site are copyrighted by Joseph T. Lee III except where otherwise noted see Terms of Use.


(1) "The History of the Marion Bottling Company, Inc." By Wythe M. Hull, Jr Copyright 1985 by Wythe M. Hull, Jr

(2) The American newspaper from Marion, VA January 8, 1914 issue

(3) Quarterly Report of the Dairy and Food Commissioner of Virginia

(4) Pulaski Southwest Times