The Journey of a Coke Machine:  A Saga of Perseverance, Hope, and Love

by Christal Paetz

Going to antique shows and auctions was one of the first things Jerry and I bonded over.  In fact, our first date was attending a big antique show.  After that, we started attending the regular auctions held at a rural auction house.  We’d arrive early to check everything out before the auction started.  One of these auctions had so many items that they were on display both inside and outside the building.  As the evening wore on, it became clear that they weren’t going to get through everything at the rate they were going.  So they sent an auctioneer outside to sell those items while the inside auction kept going.  There was a vintage Coke machine outside that had had a hard life and Jerry was very interested in it.  He was also interested in something that hadn’t sold inside yet, so he sent me outside to bid on the Coke machine, giving me a strict limit of $20 as the highest he wanted to bid on it.  When the auction was finally over and we met up again, he asked how much the Coke machine had sold for.  He was incredulous when I told him it had sold for $20, to me.  No one else was bidding on it, so I bid $20 and that was that. 

Thus began our multi-year saga of the Coke machine (Vendo 81-d, circa 1958-59 – the 6.5 ounce Coke bottle era).  Fortunately it fit in the back of the car I had at the time of the auction, although I did have to ride in the back with the machine on the way home to keep it balanced.  We moved it to Iowa City, then to Florida, and finally to Oregon.  While in Iowa City, Jerry used it as a Christmas tree, hanging lights on it.  The quite hefty, rusty unit had lots of character but worked only occasionally.  Over the years Jerry made some effort to determine what would be required to restore it.  But full-time employment and difficulty finding restoration resources delayed serious start on the work until after retirement.  In 2019 Jerry increased his efforts to find out how to get the exterior painted, obtain parts to replace many corroded/broken items and get the coin mechanism and refrigeration unit repaired.  A shop 25 miles away that looked unassuming from the outside but had a professional paint shop inside did an excellent job on the paint while repairing a significant dent in the door.  A small local business in our area was willing to tackle the refrigeration unit.  It didn’t need a lot of effort to get it running again, and they feel it will run just fine for years to come.  Before the coin mechanism was sent to a Coke machine wizard in Wisconsin it yielded a 1940’s Mercury dime.

Now all the pieces were in place and ready to be reassembled.  Jerry’s brother-in-law, Kevin, offered to come out in early 2020 for a week to help with the final reassembly.  However, 2020 and its pandemic had other plans.  This meant that Jerry and I would be the ones to complete the process, which I guess is only right since it started with the two of us.  Parts of the Coke machine like the door and the refrigeration unit are heavy, so Jerry put his imagination to work to figure out how just the two of us could get everything accomplished, including getting the result up five steps and through two doorways into its final position.  The answer involved moving the pieces into the selected room, then putting them together.  Still, there was much trepidation and effort involved in the process.

On January 10, 2021 after the refrigeration unit was coaxed into place, the door was reconnected to the body and the process was complete!  All the time, effort, thought, strategizing, and financing that went into the project resulted in a successful restoration. Ice-cold Cokes are now available on demand.  Jerry elected to set up the coin mechanism so that it’s not necessary to put in a dime to get one’s Coke.  Other improvements include new wiring and insulation, changing the fluorescent bulb and ballast to a direct wired LED and replacing the metal leveling feet with adjustable swivel casters which make moving the unit a lot easier.  Otherwise nearly everything in the restoration remains faithful to the 1950’s roots.  He’s also researching what other types of beverage bottles will fit in it (Coronas work fine).  Once this pandemic passes, we will be delighted to share a Coke and a smile with our friends and family!