Woody the Gnome is the bearded advertising mascot who adorns the bottles and cans of Vernor’s Ginger Ale, originally based in Detroit, Michigan.
The image of Woody the Gnome was created by an artist named Noble Fellows. It was used from the turn of the century until 1987. In 2002, Woody returned once again as the company’s brand mascot. Vernor’s is currently owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Inc. in Plano, Texas.
Vernor’s is a unique carbonated ginger soda with a sweet, vanilla scent and rich caramel color. According to legend, the bubbly drink had its origins at the start of the American Civil War when a pharmacist named James Vernor at the Higby & Sterns drugstore at 233 Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan experimented with flavors in an attempt to duplicate a popular ginger ale imported from Dublin, Ireland.
Unfortunately, his experiment was disrupted when he was called off to serve in the war between the sates. Before heading into the fray, Vernor stored his syrup base of 19 ingredients, including ginger, vanilla and other natural flavorings in an oaken cask. Vernor then joined the 4th Michigan Cavalry on August 14, 1862 as a hospital steward, was promoted to second lieutenant on September 20, 1864, and was discharged on July 1, 1865.
Upon his return from the war four years later, Vernor opened his syrup keg and discovered the caramel colored fluid inside had been changed by the aging process in the wood. Tasting the contents, he purportedly declared “Deliciously different,” which became the corporate motto for his product. It became so popular that Vernor left his Woodward Avenue pharmacy to open a soda fountain shop and concentrate on making the pop.
One source reported Vernor’s to be “Golden in color and hyper-effervescent, it’s only mildly sweet with a mellow ginger flavor coupled with a distinct vanilla aroma. It falls somewhere between a cream soda and a dry-style ginger ale.”
The original storefront for Vernor’s Ginger Ale was located in a 4-story brick building on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. In time, The Vernor’s Company opened a landmark bottling operation in downtown Detroit to handle its expanding business. The Vernor’s bottling plant in Flint, Michigan featured a huge mural painted on a brick wall facing the parking lot of Woody the Gnome and his many gnomes friends hard at work stacking and storing kegs of Vernor’s ginger ale.
And so, before there was Coca Cola, before there was Pepsi, before there was Dr. Pepper, there was Vernor’s Ginger Ale, the oldest soft drink beverage in the country.
Books on the history of Vernor’s ginger ale include, “The Vernor’s Story: From Gnomes to Now” by Lawrence L. Rouch. (University of Michigan Press/Regional (2003); and “Vernor’s Ginger Ale” by Keith Wunderlich (Arcadia Publishing, 2008).
In 1996, Vernor’s claims of oak barrel aging were dropped from the cans. Their Diet version now claims “barrel aged for three years,” while the regular version simply says, “Barrel Aged Bold Taste.”
Over the years, Vernor’s ginger ale company has changed hands a number of times. In 1966, the Vernor family sold the company to an outside investment group. Subsequently, the company was acquired by American Consumer Products and, later, by United Brands. Vernors returned to the ownership of a soft drink company when A&W Beverages, Inc. purchased The Vernors Company in 1987.
Today, Vernors is part of Plano, Texas-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group, an integrated refreshment beverage business marketing more than 50 beverage brands throughout North America.
NOTE: The grave of James Vernor, inventor of Vernor’s Ginger Ale, rests at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan.
Up until 1885, James Vernor was actually listed in the Detroit city directory as a “Druggist and Florist,” not a soda entrepreneur. Indeed, a trademark for “Vernor’s” was not even applied for until 1911, at which time James Vernor claimed that the ginger ale entered commerce in 1880—not 1865.
The Boston Cooler, a favorite Detroit soda fountain treat consists of Vernor’s ginger ale being poured over vanilla ice cream.
In 1968, a Vernors advertising artist (Ron Bialecki) decided to grow out his beard and become the gnome (a.k.a Noble Fellows). He decked out a yellow AMC Pacer in Vernors swag, including a barrel, called it the Gnome Mobile, and became the unofficial mascot at James Vernor Elementary School.
On March 13, 2011, fans of Vernor’s ginger ale founded National Vernors Day. The date 3/13 reflects Detroit’s area code (313).
Vernor’s Ginger Ale
c/o Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Inc
5301 Legacy Drive
Plano, TX 75024
Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group (Website)