Twin Lights soda

The Boston Globe
August 5, 2001, Sunday ,THIRD EDITION

LENGTH: 1297 words



ROCKPORT – The vintage Dixie bottling machine in the barn at 69 Broadway runs only irregularly now, and returnable soda bottles are hard to come by.

Yet Twin Lights soda, a vestige of the mom-and-pop bottling industry that once flourished in Massachusetts, still bubbles in this corner of Cape Ann.

Twin Lights soda maker Pierce Sears, 69, of Rockport, has carried on the business founded by his grandparents in 1907.

“I didn’t expect to be here this long,” said Sears. “I didn’t expect the bottles to hold out.” Sears keeps in stock 20 or 30 cases of each of Twin Lights’ dozen flavors, replenishing the supply as need be. He personally delivers cases of the 7-ounce and quart bottles to customers who ask.

The Dixie bottling machine in Sears’ converted barn-bottling plant predates World War II and is capable of turning out a case a minute.

Bottles from the washer move along a conveyor, receive an ounce of syrup for a 7-ounce bottle, 3 or 4 ounces for a quart – as well as a swish of carbonated water. Then they are capped. Sears samples the first bottle in a batch to make sure it tastes right.

Flavors include cola, orangeade, root beer, lemon-lime, grape, fruit punch, strawberry, cream soda, birch beer, sarsaparilla and two kinds of ginger ale, golden and pale dry. Sears also holds the local Moxie franchise, concocting the gentian root elixir from concentrate stored in a 5-gallon pail.

“Customers come by the house and pick it up,” he said. “I deliver it, too. We have people coming from as far as New Hampshire who take four or five cases at a time.

“Overall, orange is the favorite,” he said. “I think orange has always been a little more active than any kind. People also like the strange flavors – birch beer, sarsaparilla.”

Although it is packaged today in secondhand bottles and carried in only a few variety stores on Cape Ann, Twin Lights soda commands noteworthy loyalty from aficionados, who say its old-fashioned bite is not found in today’s mass-market soft drinks.

“You almost feel as if you’re chewing it,” said Joe Virgilio Jr., of Virgilio’s Italian Bakery on Main Street in Gloucester, which has carried Twin Lights since the ’50s. The soda sells at the bakery for 75 cents a 7-ounce bottle, $1.50 a quart.

“I’ve got a guy from New York who comes in two or three times a year and buys all I have – and brings the bottles back!” Virgilio said. “He knows that when they run out of bottles, they go out of business.”

It is no longer easy to find 7-ounce and quart returnable bottles that fit the Ladewig Bottle Washer and the circa-1939 Dixie bottling machine that compose the Twin Lights bottling operation.

A Henniker, N.H., vintage-bottle collector keeps Sears supplied, and the bottling barn attached to Sears’ home at 71 Broadway is a shrine to regional soft-drink companies past.

Stacked cases are filled with old empties from Lakeview Beverages of Webster and Highland Club of Ludlow, from Crystal Club of Scranton, Pa., and Regent Bottling Co. of Pittsburgh.

Twin Lights labels with a logo of Rockport’s landmark Thacher Island lighthouses are pasted over the old brand names. Sears redeems each returned 7-ounce bottle for 10 cents and each quart bottle for 20 cents.

“We aren’t in supermarkets because the bottles would get lost. We don’t have enough to stock them,” he said. “We’ve got enough bottles now for another year.”

On eBay this past week, vintage 1960s Twin Lights bottles painted with the double-lighthouse logo were being offered for prices ranging from $9.98 to $22.50, while 1930s Twin Lights ginger ale labels were going for $4.50.

At the Little Art Cinema on School Street in Rockport, filmgoers viewing the Swedish film “Under the Sun” last week could wash down their popcorn with 7-ounce bottles of Twin Lights selling at the movie theater price of $1.50.

“I think it’s the shape of those lovely little bottles – it’s so ‘mom-and-popsy,’ ” said cinema owner Arnold Morton, who claimed an addiction to Twin Lights root beer. “It’s nostalgic. It beckons to another time.”

Twin Lights recalls an era when every corner “spa” in the Bay State carried local “tonic,” and brands like Chelmsford Ginger Ale and Millis’s Clicquot Club were household names.

As many as 96 bottlers operated in the Worcester County region alone in the 1930s, according to Christopher Crowley, executive vice president of Worcester-based Polar Beverages, one of the few regional independents remaining.

Changing market demographics, the rise of national supermarkets, and the introduction of nonreturnable packaging were among the factors that undercut small local bottlers, said Crowley, a member of the fourth generation of his family to run Polar Beverages, which reported about $200 million in sales last year.

Most independents couldn’t compete with giants like Coca-Cola or Pepsi in obtaining national grocery contracts or purchasing bulk quantities of raw materials such as sugar, syrup, and bottling glass, Crowley said, and either were swallowed up by national brands or went out of business.

“It was – and is – a pennies business,” said Crowley. “Every penny you made you had to re-invest. The industry changed.”

There was a time when Twin Lights rivaled Coke and Pepsi in popularity on Cape Ann. Tens of thousands of cases a year of orangeade, ginger ale, and sarsaparilla with the distinctive Twin Lights label used to roll out of the bottling plant in the converted barn on Broadway.

Curative powers were attributed to Twin Lights. The ginger ale was known as the “hospital drink,” said the baker, Virgilio, a Gloucester native, because “if ever you were in the hospital, they’d give you Twin Lights ginger ale.” The old orangeade, meantime, had a local reputation as a potent cure for hangover.

“We had every small store on Cape Ann,” said Sears, recalling the brand’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s. “We had every bar in Gloucester, and Gloucester had a lot of bars.”

In Gloucester, Twin Lights machines were found in fish-processing plants, in the post office, and at the Bass Rocks Golf Club.

In Rockport, at Jimmy Rantala’s hot dog and ice cream stand on Back Beach, Twin Lights’ numerous varieties outsold Coca-Cola. “For a small stand, he sold a fabulous amount of tonic,” said Sears. “He sold hundreds of cases a week.”

Sears went to work full time in the family bottling business after serving in the Army and earning a degree from Suffolk University in the late 1950s. Since his father, George, died eight years ago, he has carried on the Twin Lights legacy by himself.

“I’m not holding out or anything,” he said. “I’m just glad to be able to keep this building busy.”

This past Sunday afternoon, Richard Bryant of Rockport arrived at the Twin Lights loading dock on Broadway to pick up his weekly 12-quart ration of golden ginger ale and drop off the previous week’s empties.

“Good golden ginger ale is hard to find,” said Bryant, who said he has lived all but two of his 74 years in Rockport. ” I’ve got to get golden ginger ale. Otherwise, the children will be on my neck.”

Sears carried the case to the customer’s car.

The soda maker acknowledged that Twin Lights’ mismatched bottles carry memories as much as soda. “There is a call for it. There are people who fondly remember it.”

So Sears will carry on. “As long as I can acquire the bottles,” he said.

Twin Lights soda is available at the Thomas Wilson & Co. bottling plant at 69 Broadway in Rockport and at selected outlets on Cape Ann, including, in Rockport, the Rockport Market at 21 Broadway and Little Art Cinema at 18 School St.; in Gloucester, Virgilio’s Italian Bakery at 29 Main St. and Annie’s Variety at 86 Concord St.; and in Essex, Puna’s Convenient Store at 121 Eastern Ave.

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