662-843-3432       MAILING: PO Box 117, Cleveland MS 38732       OFFICE: 125 S. Court St., Cleveland MS 38732

May 31, 2023

Nehi Bottling Company

Celebrates its 96th year in business

by Catherine Kirk

The Bolivar Bullet

Just one month after the Nehi Bottling Company in Cleveland opened its doors for business, the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 devastated many cities along its river banks.

Two years later, the Great Depression struck the nation. Ten years after that, World War II began. 

As the Nehi Bottling Company celebrates its 96th year in business, third generation owner Homer Sledge III said he is proud of the history behind the beginnings of his grandfather’s endeavor to open and operate a successful business.

“There’s a lot of time I sit in my office and think about what my grandfather went through,” Sledge said as he reminisced about the history of the company.

In 1922, Homer Sledge Sr. left his home in Alva and moved to Greenwood. There, he and Jack Ditto managed the general store on Racetrack Plantation. 

One day, an Orange Crush salesman stopped by their store to sell drinks. The salesman suggested Sledge get into the soft drink business, explaining he made good money and had even been able to purchase a new car. 

“I don’t think my granddad even had a car back then, and so he though that was the greatest thing ever,” said Sledge. 

In 1926, Sledge wrote a letter to the Nehi Corporation in Columbus, Georgia, and was awarded a franchise for his choice of either Cleveland or Clarksdale. He chose Cleveland.

After Ditto backed away from the endeavor, Sledge, his father and two uncles pulled together about $8,000 to start the business. 

From there, Sledge rode by horseback to Duck Hill, where he caught a train to Winona, another train to Leland, and then up to Cleveland. 

“Back then, when you left home, that was it,” said Sheldge. “Today we could go two hours up to Alva, but that wasn’t the case then. You left and didn’t go home. That’s pretty amazing. I wonder if I could have done what we did, and I don’t know. He was risking everything.”

At the time, there were 130 production plants throughout the state, bottling beverages like Coca Cola, Pepsi, 7UP, Barq’s, and more. There weren’t many places making flavored drinks. 

“We competed mostly in the flavor business because that’s what we were,” said Sledge. “We started out as Nehi and we had orange, grape, strawberry, peach, root beer and more.”

The business began in a building near their present location that no longer exists. Sledge Sr. constructed the current building at 310 North Sharpe St. in 1948. The building next to the railroad tracks was on the route that was formerly U.S. 61. 

Production at the Nehi Bottling Company began March 8, 1927, and the first delivery trucks went out two days later. 

The rest, Sledge said, is history. 

Sledge said his grandfather often told the story about one day during the Great Depression when the power company went to the business to cut its power off.

“He said, ‘If you’ll just give me until tonight, I’ll have enough money to pay you.’ You were talking about maybe $25, but nobody had any money back then,” said Sledge. “He made it through by his determination and perseverance. I remember him telling me as a teenager, ‘I hope no one ever goes through what the Depression was like.”

In 2020, a worldwide outbreak of an unknown virus began to spread and dominate the world. Despite the setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sledge said they had the determination to be like his grandfather and simply do the best they could.

“Production and supply chain was awful,” he said, noting there were times a truck typically carrying 28 pallets would only have six pallets. “You’re just grasping for straws, asking for anything. It wore on me and everybody. … Because of our employees and our customers, we made it through, thank the Lord.” 

In 1934, Royal Crown (RC) Cola was born, and the Nehi Bottling Company began to bottle that as well.

The Nehi Bottling Company Corporation in 1955 would change their name to the Royal Crown Bottling Company, but Sledge was not interested in doing the same and decided to continue with their current name.

In 1967, the company picked up Dr. Pepper, followed by 7UP in 1969. After that, drinks such as A&W, Sunkist, and Snapple came along. 

Homer Sledge Sr. worked up until two weeks before he died in 1992 at the age of 90. His son, Homer Sledge Jr., took on his role, which he held until his death in 2021. Today, Homer Sledge III runs and operates the company, where he began working at age 12. 

“My first job was to mow the yard at our offices and I didn’t do a very good job, so my dad fired me,” Sledge said with a laugh. “At 13, I came back and I helped on the production line, just learning how to work.”

In 1994, the company moved away from the production side of the business to focus solely on distribution. They distribute to stores in Bolivar, Coahoma, Sunflower, Talahatchie, Quitmman, and Leflore counties. 

There are two remaining production facilities in Mississippi — the Pepsi Production Facility in Hattiesburg and the Coca Cola facility in Clinton. Cleveland’s Nehi Bottling Company now obtains their product from large production centers in Irving, Texas, Louisville, Kentucky, and Jacksonville, Florida. 

Today, the company employees 19 people and they distribute RC Cola, Diet Rite, Nehi, Dr. Pepper, 7UP, A&W, Sunkist, Canada Dry, Squirt, Tahitian Treat, Deja Blue Water, Evian Water, Core Water, A SHOC Energy, Snapple, Mistic, and Bai.

A member of the  Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, Sledge said it is important to keep the business involved and supportive of the local community. 

“My grandfather was one of the founding members of the Chamber of Commerce and an alderman at large for 26 years,” said Sledge. “He taught my father and my father taught me that Cleveland is as only as good as we make it, so be heavily involved and do what you can because as Cleveland and Bolivar County goes, we go.”

The company supports local schools, park commissions, the GRAMMY Museum and “everything in-between, Sledge said.  

As for what the future holds, Sledge said they will figure it out as they go. 

“I have a daughter and a son and I have told them that’s their decision, not mine,” said Sledge. “I want them to go do their life and if that includes us, that’s fine, and if not, we’ll figure that part out. … I plan to stay here for a while. We’ll soon celebrate our 100th anniversary if everything goes right in four years. Our hope is we keep going, helping people when we can, and continue selling to our customers. That’s our goal.”