MONROE — Joseph Augustus Biedenharn, in the summer of 1894, became the first person to discover a way to put Coca-Cola safely into bottles. That idea forever changed an industry.
In 1913, Biedenharn moved to Monroe. And that forever changed the community.
The Biedenharn Candy Co. bought a small bottling plant in Monroe in 1912, and Biedenharn became the sole owner of the plant 100 years ago, moving his family from Vicksburg, Miss.
Today, Biedenharn’s home serves as a museum enjoyed by countless local residents and tourists from all over the country.
Approximately 25,000 to 30,000 visit the museum each year. Many local youth take their prom pictures in the gardens while countless weddings have been celebrated there, too.
Biedenharn Museum and Gardens Executive Director Ralph Calhoun said whenever he visits other parts of Louisiana and even other states, people immediately recognize Monroe as home of the Biedenharns.
He said the family’s footprint in the community will be felt for generations.
“Just look around our community — there’s an Emy-Lou Biedenharn Hall at ULM, there are at least three student scholarships at ULM, and we’ve got the ballfields in West Monroe. The individual family members also have been very charitable,” Calhoun said.
In 1925, Biedenharn joined a group of entrepreneurs who purchased a crop-dusting business and added 18 planes. At the time, it was the largest privately owned fleet in the world. That company eventually became Delta Air Lines, which operated its headquarters in Monroe for decades.
Up until the late 1990s, Delta always had a Biedenharn on its board of directors.
Monroe-West Monroe Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Alana Cooper said Monroe probably would be an entirely different place if the Biedenharns never moved here.
“Large corporations were formed in the area and they grew into national companies and that’s because he and his family were smart business people,” Cooper said. “A lot of things grew from those businesses, and they helped bring more businesses that provided a lot of jobs for a lot of people.”
While Joe Biedenharn was known for his civic, philanthropic and cultural impact on Monroe, his daughter, Emy-Lou, left her own cultural legacy on her city through a number of projects supported by the Emy-Lou Biedenharn Foundation.
“The museum is one of our top attractions in our area and a great asset to our community. It not only brings tourists, but provides a great educational tool for our children,” Cooper said.
Monroe Chamber of Commerce President Sue Nicholson said Joe Biedenharn’s influence on Monroe through his business ventures is immeasurable.
“He invested quite successfully in a number of things that was significant both in Monroe and the nation. This has become a very entrepreneurial community, and I think people like Joseph Biedenharn served as a model for entrepreneurs. He inspired a lot of other people who were very entrepreneurial,” Nicholson said.
Other investors with Biedenharn helped shape Monroe in the early 20th century because of their success with him. They were allowed to invest in other endeavors such as property for commercial reasons, Nicholson said.
She agrees the legacy of Emy-Lou Biedenharn also lives on through the museum that continues to benefit Monroe by bringing tourists and providing an educational and cultural venue for local residents.
“Because of their philanthropy, we have that wonderful museum, which is a beautiful venue that’s used for many things. The investment they’ve made over the last century has been huge. If they never moved to Monroe, I think our community would be somewhat diminished,” Nicholson said.
Calhoun agrees the community was forever transformed by that historic move.
“If Joe would have gone to another town, some other family or group would have had to step up for all these things to be possible,” Calhoun said. “In every community there are only a few families or groups that can do all this, and I think you see that here with the Biedenharns. By sharing the good things they’ve had, I think they’ve been able to help so many others.”