Becoming the Bottle Washer Watcher at Made-Rite

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The Made-Rite Co. here in Longview recently announced it is selling its longtime Dr Pepper distribution franchise back to the soft drink’s parent company and will concentrate on selling “high-growth, premium products,” such as energy drinks and fancy water. The company began bottling soft drinks in Marshall in 1925, and at one point had more than a dozen bottling plants in several states.

The Longview plant opened  in 1963. Ten years later, I was working at Made-Rite full-time while finishing my sketchy high school career by correspondence course. I worked there for two years, through high school graduation and a year of night school at Kilgore College. While I had no intent of making a career out of working in a bottling plant, it was an interesting job that paid fairly well at the time.

The machinery fascinated me. Made-Rite bottled Dr Pepper, Mountain Dew and a host of other soft drinks. One of my first jobs was loading the conveyor belt with used bottles — back when folks returned bottles to stores for money. The conveyor belt traveled to the giant bottle washer, where the bottles stacked up awaiting entry into the maw like folks stacked up at a Big Box Store before the doors open on Black Friday. A worker sat perched above the bottles, making sure none fell over. That is the job I wanted, but one had to work up to it. I could read while working as the bottle washer inspector.

On the other side of the washer was a sealed room where the clean bottles entered another conveyor belt. Several women wearing hairnets inspected the bottles as they crept by, ensuring they were properly cleaned and were not cracked or chipped. That room was off-limits to peons like me.

I learned early on that a common quirk among consumers was to put the lids back on the reusable liter bottles. There is no reason to do so, or course. The Mann family, who owned Made-Rite then and now, had to pay lowly folk like me to unscrew and discard those caps so the bottles could be washed and refilled. To this day, I take the lids off bottles that are to be recycled.

As the months passed, I was “promoted” and eventually became a forklift driver. The huskier workers — definitely not me at 17 and maybe 120 pounds — loaded wooden cases of soft drinks on pallets. The pallets were on a four-sided metal structure that allowed the cases to be neatly stacked. Once a pallet was full, I would slide the forklift tongues into the pallet, carefully ease it back and take it to the other end of the warehouse. I was a cautious driver and took great care in stacking loaded ballots of soft drinks on top of each other — three or four high.

Toward the end of my tenure, before leaving town to attend SFA in Nacogdoches, I won the coveted bottle washer operator job, along with a modest raise. At last, I had a job where I could legitimately read during the frequent times the machine was halted because of a foul-up in front, where the clean bottles were being filled with Dr Pepper or Sunkist. When a bottle broke, or the bottling machine jammed, the washer stopped. I would pick up my novel or textbook and read until the buzzer sounded, and the bottles again began their march into the washer. I just had to right the fallen soldiers — what I called the bottles in my head — as they marched by, which was not difficult. I read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky while perched on the bottle washer in the months before leaving Longview.

I drank Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper for years, switching to the diet versions as I got older. Diet Coke became the soft drink of choice for a few decades, until I kicked the soft drink habit completely five years ago. Now, it’s chemical-free sparkling waters like Topo Chico or La Croix, or unsweet iced tea.

Made-Rite ceased bottling in 1990, according to its website. Down in Nacogdoches, the Coca-Cola bottler’s building was on North Street in 1974 when I arrived. The bottling operation was behind sheet-glass windows and visible from the sidewalk as I walked to class. I never failed to look to see if things were running smoothly.

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