Eric Holscher is trying to bring Crescent Bottling Company back from the dead.
Hundreds and hundreds of empty glass bottles are stacked along the walls of the Camden warehouse the 45-year-old South Jersey native owns with his dad, and most of them are older than he is. Right now the crates from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s are sitting stagnant, gathering dust.
But if Holscher can pull this off, they’ll soon be pressed into service.
For 90 years, Crescent provided the region with locally-made soda. Founded in 1893, it was purchased in 1937 by Holscher’s grandfather Ernest — a native of Germany who fought for the Kaiser army in World War I, then fled to the States at age 19. Ernest expanded the operation, turning it into a mini post-war powerhouse that provided various flavors of refreshing pop to dozens of of homes and businesses.
The factory, at 25th Street and River Avenue, was impressive for its day. Ernest built an entire room to hold 400-lb. cakes of ice, delivered by truck and slid off with giant, human-sized tongs. Local customers would come by just for the ice, which they’d buy by placing a coin in an automated chopper that would spit out chunks in a takeaway wax-coated paper bag.
But the ice was a side hustle. Crescent’s real work was going on inside the building. On the second floor, Ernest and his workers tended big kettles where they mixed syrups, coming up with the base for Crescent’s popular “Sparkling Pep,” mint ginger ale, lime rickey, “Imitation Strawberry Cream,” sarsaparilla and more.
Meanwhile, on the main factory floor, a chain of huge machines worked in tandem to make the final product. They sanitized the returnable bottles, filled them with cold water, piped in the optional flavors, forced CO2 into the mix, sealed the pressurized containers with flip-caps or spray heads, and landed them in wooden crates that had been nailed together in the woodworking room upstairs.
For the past few years, Holscher has been trying to resurrect all the antique equipment — not the ice machine, but everything else — and bring the custom soda business back.
“I think there’s a market for these local, artisanal products now,” he said. “There’s going to be a little stigma because we’re from Camden, but there’s also a nostalgia factor. Around Thanksgiving every year people come around and ask for it, tell us how they loved it so much when they were a kid.”
His effort has been stymied somewhat by the fact that several of the manufacturers are no longer in business — and slowed somewhat more by the discovery that most the machines had been jerry-rigged by his uncle in order to keep them cranking. In some cases, he said, sections needed to be taken apart entirely, then rebuilt back to specs using the old, yellowed manuals he found stashed on high shelves.
Holscher’s uncle Wilhelm and father Karl had taken over at some point in the 70s, although Ernest came to work every day all the way through age 92. As the soda industry changed, the second-generation owners tried to keep up.
They added twist caps, switched to disposable bottles and then — as Camden’s economy cratered and their bar and restaurant customers began closing down, one by one — they finally caved and added distribution of other drink products.
But Crescent still mixed, carbonated, bottled and delivered its house brand all the way through the 1990s. “We weren’t thriving, like my grandfather was in the 1960s, but we were still making soda,” Holscher said.
Then, in 1997, the antique boiler used to sanitize the containers broke beyond repair. Bottling ceased, and the 15,000-square-foot factory became little more than a backdrop for the distribution business and its attached liquor store on the corner.
If you search Google Maps for Crescent Bottling Co. today, that corner shop is the listing that comes up, with the main feature of note being that it has an ATM — a disappointing fate for a company that was once a pillar of Camden’s local economy.
“When the boiler split, my uncle wanted to sell all the equipment and the bottles,” Holscher said. “Some company in South America wanted to buy it all. I jumped in like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’”
The maps listing is how Franklin Fountain’s Eric Berley discovered Crescent last spring. The history aficionado was on a hunt for a place that might provide his throwback soda fountain with a custom-bottled drink. But like everything else at the Old City shops he runs with his brother, Ryan, he wanted it to be authentic.
“So I Google, and it says this place is an ‘ATM,’” Berley recounted, “but I decided to look into it further. Then I discovered this amazing project.”
The Berleys’ interest has lit a spark under Holscher. He’s made more progress in the past six months, he said, than the past couple years.
He’s in touch with a company that still has a working steamwasher, and is thinking of starting by driving pallets of bottles up to Connecticut and back once a week. Then he’ll fill them himself — two or three flavors to start, including a ginger beer — and hand-deliver them to customers. In addition to Franklin Fountain, for whom he might create a custom label, he envisions Crescent being sold at boutique markets, classic diners and hip bars.
Holscher’s dad doesn’t believe in the project at all. And it’s true, he admits, that one has to produce a lot of soda to pay for the six or seven people it’ll take to run the place.
“But I want to do it,” he said. “I want to make the best soda I possibly can, and have people drink it and say, ‘Wow, that’s really good!’”