Sip of Relief

  • By Elizabeth Leland

Dope wagons delivered a pick-me-up for tired textile workers.


The days were long. The conditions were hot. And the workers were worn-out. In the 1920s, inside the cotton mills of Charlotte and neighboring textile towns, workers eagerly awaited the arrival of contraptions called dope wagons.

A sort of concession stand on wheels, the handmade wagons brought relief from the heat and humidity of the factories before the introduction of vending machines. They arrived with homemade sandwiches, crackers, candy bars, cigarettes, headache powders, and the most popular item of all: ice-cold dopes.

Mill workers in the South referred to cold, caffeinated beverages as dopes. Historians don’t know for certain the origin of the name, but they suspect it comes from popular lore that the original Coca-Cola recipe contained extracts of cocaine.

“Without question, there was tincture of cocaine in the original Coke, whether or not it was addictive,” says Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. “In folklore, clearly there was the notion that these things would make you feel better.”

Local brands

Several soft drinks originated in the South. Factories were hot and hours long in the nonunion Southern states. Cotton needs a moist, warm climate to make it easier to spin, so mill managers often bricked over windows and installed climate-control systems — which were good for the cotton, but tough on the workers.

“Caffeinated beverages were so popular here because after the long hours working on those mill machines, you wanted a pick-me-up,” Hanchett says. “The dopes and the dope wagons are not specific to Charlotte, but Charlotte was the trading center of the textile-manufacturing belt.”

Pepsi-Cola, which a New Bern pharmacist created in 1898, granted one of its first franchises to Charlotte because of the city’s central location among surrounding mill towns. Nearby Gastonia had two competing bottling plants: Spindle City Beverages and The Original 3 Centa Drink — a bargain compared to pricier 5-cent brands.

Salisbury had Cheerwine. Shelby produced Sundrop.

And the drink that gave the wagons their names, Coca-Cola, originated in Atlanta, Georgia, but Charlotte’s Coca-Cola Consolidated became the world’s largest Coke bottler.

Lint with lunch

In the early days of Southern textile mills, workers got an hour off for lunch, and most of them walked home to eat, says Lynn Rumley, director of the Textile Heritage Center in Cooleemee. The mills and their machines shut down for that hour.

Then, in the late ’20s and ’30s, came the stretch-outs, when managers ordered workers to speed up production. By World War II, workers barely received a half-hour break, so the dope wagons brought the food and drinks to them. Many of the mills kept the machinery running even while the employees ate.

“You stayed pretty close to the machines and tried to keep the lint off your sandwich,” Rumley says.

For workers, dopes became a welcome and affordable treat.

Few dope wagons looked alike. Workers pulled together a hodgepodge of spare wood and discarded metal parts and pushed the carts through the mills on old car wheels. But the carts shared one important characteristic: Each contained a box, usually lined with tin or steel, filled with bottled drinks and lots of ice.

Because more than anything, after laboring in a hot, humid mill, nothing tasted better than an ice-cold dope.

Elizabeth Leland, an author and award-winning journalist, enjoys writing about the people and places of North Carolina for The Charlotte Observer.

This entry was posted in History, June 2012 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sip of Relief

  1. Robert D. Brown says:

    I grew up in Belmont, one of the south’s great textile center. The “DOPE WAGON ” got it name, not from the Coke in Cocaine thought by many but from the workers seeing relief from sore muscles and pain in the back from working so hard. Some would say, “Give me a RC, a BC and a Goodie powder. They would drink a few drinks from the bottle, the pour in the BC and the Goodie power. This was equal to 5 or 6 aspirins or more. This gave the user a lift and relief from pains from hard work. This the drinks became referred to as DOPES and the refreshment wagon “the dope wagon.

    Regards, Bobby Brown, on of the Founders of the Belmont Historical Society
    Belmont, North Carolina.

  2. Mark King says:

    My grandfather pushed the dope wagon at Roanoke #2 JP Stevens mill in Roanoke Rapids for many years. I remember walking part of his route with him one time. I think he pushed the dope wagon until approximately 1980. Nice to read a story about the old dope wagons.

Leave a Comment:

Comments are moderated and once approved will appear in the space above. Your name will appear as you provide it in the block below. Your email address will not appear or be shared. Required fields are marked *.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>