Asa Griggs Candler, founder of the Coca-Cola Company, was also a banker and real estate developer and was noted for his philanthropy. Born in Carroll County in 1851, Candler was one of eleven children of a prosperous merchant and planter. Brought up with a firm work ethic and strong religious beliefs, he learned the trade of “prescriptionist” and went into the pharmacy business in Atlanta. He and his wife, Lucy Elizabeth Howard, were the parents of four sons and a daughter.
Candler became a successful manufacturer of patent medicines, and in 1888 he bought from John Stith Pemberton the rights to make a tonic and headache remedy called Coca-Cola. Using innovative advertising and distribution methods, Candler marketed this new product as a soft drink. Contrary to rumor, it did not contain cocaine, although the Coca-Cola formula did contain a “secret ingredient” that remains a proprietary secret to the present day. Candler, who did not approve of alcohol consumption, objected strongly to the slang terms for his product, “Coke” and”dope.” By 1920 he had won an extended legal battle with the Food and Drug Administration over its healthfulness, and Coca-Cola had made him a millionaire.
Candler then diversified his interests by investing in real estate and banking. He developed the Druid Hills neighborhood on the outskirts of Atlanta and organized the Central Bank and Trust Company. To house the bank and the headquarters of the Coca-Cola Company, he erected the Candler Building, the tallest building in Atlanta when it opened in 1906.
Asa Candler’s great wealth enabled him to make large donations, frequently to projects sponsored by his Methodist denomination. His younger brother Warren Akin Candler, a Methodist bishop, advised him in these matters. Candler’s best-known philanthropy was in the form of a personal check for $1 million, donated to defray the costs of establishing Emory University in Atlanta as a Methodist institution. Over his lifetime his gifts to the university totaled about $8 million. The Candler School of Theology at Emory was named in honor of the Candler brothers.
In 1916 Candler was elected as a reform mayor to sort out Atlanta’s chaotic fiscal situation. At this point he handed over control of most of his business enterprises, including the Coca-Cola Company, to his children. Retaining active control only of Central Bank and Trust, he devoted much of his time to his new mayoral duties. In addition to cleaning up the city’s finances, he faced other challenges as mayor. The great fire of 1917, which consumed more than 1,500 homes, saw Candler leading the city’s struggle to control the destruction and to recover from the damage. When the United States entered World War I that year, Atlantans hoped that their city would be the location of Camp Gordon, a military training facility. This became possible only because Candler made large personal loans to facilitate the construction of water and sewer services to the site.
In the last decade of his life, the widowed Candler became engaged to a New Orleans, Louisiana, socialite but then broke the engagement. She unsuccessfully sued him for breach of promise. It was during this period that his children sold control of the Coca-Cola Company to a syndicate led by Ernest Woodruff. In 1922 Candler also sold Central Bank and Trust. The next June he married Mae Little Ragin, a widowed public stenographer with twin daughters. The marriage was unhappy; Candler filed for divorce in June 1924 but dropped the suit in December.
In failing health, Asa Candler arranged to give the last remnants of his fortune to Emory, keeping only enough to live on. He suffered a disabling stroke in 1926 and died in 1929.