Detroit Historical Museum marks 150 years of Vernors
Crafted by a Detroit drug store clerk in the 1860s, Vernors ginger ale today is more than just a familiar label to Metro Detroiters. Besides being one of the oldest soda brands in the nation, its winking gnome mascot and unique and strong ginger bite seem to give it mythical healing powers.
The soft drink turns 150 this year, and while it is now just one of many brands owned by the Texas-based Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Vernors is considered to be as Detroit as Better Made chips or Buddy’s Pizza.
“Vernors has an appeal of nostalgia and that, as an emotion, can lead to loyalty,” said Eric Schwartz, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. He added that one of the most interesting thing about Vernors is that the brand has “stayed so local and yet has lasted so long.”
“Niche brands are hard to sustain ... (but) people have memories of the grandparents serving them ginger ale to settle their upset stomach, and that tradition continues, from speaking to people who have grown up here.”
The Detroit Historical Museum will celebrate the brand’s longevity Saturday with a Vernors 150th anniversary party featuring activities for all ages related to the iconic pop.
“It’s hard to tell the story of someone who grew up in Detroit in the 1940s and ’50s that doesn’t somehow involve Vernors,” Vernors historian Keith Wunderlich said. He’ll be at the party signing his book “Vernor’s Ginger Ale.”
“The story is much deeper than just about a drink. It’s about something that really impacted a city and the culture of the people who lived in that city.”
Detroit Historical Society spokeswoman Sarah Murphy said organizers had nothing so ambitious in mind when plans for the party began about a year ago. The event was originally envisioned as one of the Detroit Historical Museum’s regular small summer programs, Murphy said. But the 2,200 people currently RSVPed to a Facebook event for the party created a different picture.
“When word got out about it right around January, the first of the year, it kind of exploded,” Murphy said. “People seem really excited.”
A small exhibit of Vernors memorabilia is on display at the museum and will run through Sunday.
Gene and Tina Terzak from Sterling Heights were one of the first visitors through the exhibit this week. Gene Terzak said he’s been a collector of all things Detroit his whole life — old beer bottles, car stuff, records, jukeboxes — but he is particularly interested in pop bottles.
“I have over 100 Detroit pop bottles going back to 1900, and I’m interested in Vernors,” he said. “It’s got the ginger in it, it’s a hometown brand, and it’s one of the oldest brands in the country.”
“It’s good for everything,” Tina Terzak added. “Even cooking.”
Vernors also has a loyal following outside the Metro area. Wunderlich is the founder of the Vernors Ginger Ale Collector’s Club, a group of about 70 from across the U.S. and Canada.
The club is primarily dedicated to discussing and sharing assorted Vernors memorabilia, ranging from old bottles to advertising to soda fountains.
Wunderlich also hosts “pop-up soda fountains,” where they make Vernors floats and flavored Vernors like grape and rhubarb. The most recent one was Tuesday afternoon at the Broderick Grille in Detroit.
He theorizes that the drink’s appeal to collectors lies in its striking green-and-yellow color scheme and its gnome mascot.
“Others blend in where Vernors stands out,” Wunderlich said. “So even some folks who may not have roots in a Vernors town like Detroit or Toledo or Windsor or Buffalo, New York, they still may love the advertising and love the history behind it.”
Although he’ll be celebrating the 150th anniversary of his favorite beverage this weekend, Wunderlich hastens to note that it’s only the anniversary of the drink’s introduction at James Vernor’s drugstore. It wasn’t until 1896 that Vernor closed his store and focused on his ginger ale full-time.
“You look at Vernors and you say, ‘Wow, 150 years. What a successful venture that must have been,’ ” Wunderlich said. “But I don’t believe it was an instant success.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward, Detroit
■Poker run, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
■“Detroit Remembers When: Made in the Motor City” screening and chat with filmmaker Bill Kubota
■Vernors Gnome meet-and-greet, noon-5 p.m.
■History presentation, 1-2 p.m.
■“Vernor’s Ginger Ale” book signing with Keith Wunderlich, 2 p.m.
■Presentation on James Vernor in MOLLUS (Civil War Legion), 2:15-2:45 p.m.
■Vernors toast with James Vernor V and James Vernor VI, 4 p.m.
■World record attempt for most Vernors drinkers, 4:30 p.m.
Vernors exhibit: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Admission: Free (poker run tickets $10)
More info: (313) 833-180, detroithistorical.org