Call it another one of history’s mysteries, a quest to solve the riddle of how something happened and when.
This time the conundrum involves an old Coca-Cola mural painted on the side of a downtown Mount Airy building — but the question is just how old the original sign was before it recently was restored.
The paint had barely dried from the restoration when the debate began, triggered by a June 19 ceremony sponsored by Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated to celebrate the project — one of many funded by the company to revamp its “ghost” murals in various locations.
It was noted during the program that the original sign was believed to be about 100 years old, although no exact date has been pinpointed. When the restoration effort was first announced last fall, it was reported that the sign was thought to have first been painted around 1915.
This was based on old photographs and various accounts pieced together by Barbara McMillian, who owns the Mayberry Country Flowers & Gifts/Hair World building at 185 N. Main St. where the sign is located.
However that time frame has been questioned in the wake of the June 19 program, including a statement from Ann Taylor Leonard.
“My family owned the building in the ’30s, and the Coca-Cola sign was not there at that time,” Leonard commented.
She also supplied a black-and-white photograph showing the side of the building from that era, which has no Coke sign visible.
The date discrepancy later was confirmed by Walter Leonard Jr., the owner of Leonard’s Jewelers, which has operated downtown since 1893.
Leonard is 86 years old and remembers the building in question as a youngster. “Because I had to go down there and bring down boxes and things like that,” he said of the structure his dad used for storage. Leonard remembers negotiating a flight of wooden stairs then located on the side of the building in order to reach its upper portion.
“I just thought the date was wrong on it,” he said of the accepted belief around town that the sign initially was painted circa 1915.
But Leonard guesses that it must have emerged no earlier than the early 1930s instead, judging by the cars pictured in the old photo.
“The Canteen next door is being built when this picture was taken,” Leonard said of a structure that when torn down in the 1980s revealed the faded Coke sign and sparked efforts to bring about its restoration which finally occurred recently.
“I just believe that right’s right and wrong’s wrong,” the veteran business owner said of his interest in reflecting the accurate date of the sign’s origin.
However, McMillian — the Mayberry Country Flowers & Gifts/Hair World building owner — is standing by her belief that the sign is about 100 years old, despite the challenges raised.
“I don’t want to get into nothing with them,” she said of those questioning the date reference.
But McMillian says the old picture of the side of the building might not be the clear-cut evidence that it appears, theorizing that the sign could be there but simply washed out by sunlight.
She says this condition has occurred with recent photographs of that spot, and probably was even more of a factor with older cameras.
A graphics expert at The Mount Airy News who enlarged the picture said there does appear to be evidence of some type of image on the side of the wall where the Coke mural was placed at some point. This is based on a shimmery appearance of the brick.
Another reason for McMillian’s belief about the mural’s age stems from the design of the Coke bottle pictured, which is an older square-type version of the soft drink container. The contoured or iconic “short fat” bottle most consumers are familiar with would have been available had the sign been painted during the 1930s period as the critics maintain, she said.
“They would have used the new bottle,” McMillian said of Coca-Cola officials at the time. “They wouldn’t have used the old square bottle.”
She also thinks that if the sign came about at some later date — instead of circa 1915 — and was concealed by The Canteen, the image wouldn’t have been as faded as it was revealed to be when that business was torn down in the 1980s. Under McMillian’s theory, this would have resulted from the sign being exposed to the elements for a shorter time.
“If it had been covered up by a building, it should have been preserved.”
McMillian added that logic can play a role in such situations in the absence of clear-cut evidence.
“This is where you’ve got to use critical-thinking skills.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.