After years of expense and effort, the McClain family in Independence is rolling out six flavors of an old Independence favorite, Polly’s Pop.
Ken and Cindy McClain have revived several locations on the Square, and Polly’s Pop, which was made a few blocks west of the Square for more than 40 years, has been in their plans for years.
They would need, among other things, a bottling machine, and Ken McClain found one more than 15 years ago, last used by a company at Union Station.
“I bought it with the idea that we would get to this at some point,” he said.
Now, with the help of Graceland University interns -- the McClains hire several each summer, and they have worked on projects from the outdoor movies on the Square to helping launch Up Dog a few years ago -- the popular soft drink is back.
“For sure, I think the market’s here in Independence,” said Shelby McClain, a daughter of Cindy and Ken and the person who’s worked with the interns and overseen much of the Polly’s Pop effort.
Years of success
Louis L. “Polly” and Dorothea Compton started the Independence Bottling Company in 1923. It was on River Boulevard near Truman Road and just north of Stone Church. Polly’s Pop Park sits there today. Compton sold the company to his brothers-in-law, Vernon and Victor Givan, in 1953.
An Examiner article several years ago, about a local couple who pulled together a book of Polly’s Pop newspaper ads, noted that the company stressed the five-cent price and said “it’s good for your family and children,” “It’s a hometown product,” and “It’s great for entertainment.”
The company stayed in operation until 1967.
“Victor Givan had just died, and according to his brother, he didn’t want to carry on alone,” Examiner columnist David Jackson wrote in 2012. “Besides, national soft drink companies were switching to cans and plastic bottles.”
But Independence has never entirely forgotten. More than once, says Shelby McClain, the subject has come up and people have stopped her then and there to share their stories.
“There’s just nostalgia about Polly’s Pop … ,” she said.
Up and running
It’s been a long road back. The McClains and their team had to get the flavors right, and they had to get that 66-year-old bottling machine back in form.
Executive chefs from other McClain properties were brought in to help taste and tweak the recipes, which include cane sugar. The result is six flavors, so far: grape, orange, strawberry, pineapple, root beer and cream soda.
“People have liked them very much. … It’s quite an art and a science to get these things right,” Ken McClain said.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
“You know, at first I thought it was the flavors,” Shelby McClain said, “and that turned out to be the easier part.”
The other key has been getting the bottling machine back in form, carrying out a variety of tasks: Newly sterilized bottles move on a conveyor line. Each gets two ounces of syrup and 10 ounces of carbonated water, then gets capped. The bottle is turned over several times to wake up the fizz. Then it gets a label and moves on to human hands to be boxed.
Needless to say, it has a lot of moving parts, and the old machine didn’t come with a manual. Production manager Michael Hahn said they were able to find some parts and had to have others made. It’s taken years.
“It’s definitely been piece by piece,” Shelby said.
After several years of such setback and frustration, a lot of people would have walked away.
“My mom, my dad are definitely not those types of people,” Shelby McClain said.
Another hitch: Not that many companies bottle soft drinks in glass anymore, but the McClains found one – Twig’s Beverages in Shawano, Wisconsin, which bottles Sun Drop, among other things – and sent a team there this summer to learn more. And someone from that company came to Independence to help fine-tune things.
This week, the machine was up and running in a building on Maple Avenue. It’s next to the corner of Main and Osage, where El Pico restaurant is being moved. The bottling machine is behind a glass wall, and the idea is that customers will be able come to a vestibule in front and see pop being made and buy some, too.
The soft drinks have been available for some time at McClain properties such as the Courthouse Exchange, El Pico, Clinton’s Drug Store, the Pharaoh Cinema 4 and Diamond Bowl. The plan now is to sell them at Gilbert Whitney & Co., meaning people can buy bottles and take them home.
“This is an Independence brand,” said Ken McClain. “It’s worth reviving.”