Green River pop is back in stores and the city last weekend dyed the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day. Here, Eater Chicago explores the connection, one that was established 40 years after the soda was invented, a link that stretches beyond the creeping Irishness of mid-March.
Who came up with the idea of green soda pop anyway?
Green River was invented in Davenport, Iowa, around 1916 by Richard C. Jones, owner of a candy store with a soda fountain. For years, according to an October 1919 article in the Dispatch, a newspaper in neighboring Moline, Illinois, finicky customers would appeal to Jones for a cool drink “with the bubbling snappiness of champagne.” But none of the available concoctions appealed. Eventually Jones decided he would have to invent a new drink and that lime flavor would hit the spot. After many late nights at the store, he arrived at what the Dispatch described as “the drink, the one that filled the void, the one with the snap of champagne, the tartness of the lime making a delicious cooling beverage that made a crashing hit with all who tried it.”
For a brief period, the drink was nameless. But after a local high school student, struck by its color, asked for a “green river,” the name stuck.
But how did it become a Chicago thing?
In 1919, facing impending Prohibition, Schoenhofen Edelweiss, a Chicago brewer, began looking around for alternatives to beer. This was not uncommon: during Prohibition, breweries scrambled to make up the lost income and keep their workers employed, manufacturing and selling yeast, malt syrup, carbonated coffee and tea, “cereal beverages,” ice cream, and even camping equipment. A representative approached Jones to ask about the formula and sales rights, and Jones sold for $120,000, according to the Dispatch, or roughly $1.8 million today.
Schoenhofen Edelweiss began selling Green River in Chicago that summer. The Dispatch reported that it was a hit: within eight weeks “practically every soda fountain in the Windy City was selling Green River.” Druggists who bought just a gallon or two of syrup increased their orders. Thanks to a network of beer distributors, who also needed something to do in order to stay in business, Green River went national. After Prohibition began, Schoenhofen Edelweiss began selling Green River in recycled beer bottles. Green River may also be the reason Chicagoans refer to soda as “pop.”
This is only according to legends that have been perpetuated online without any backup from legitimate historical sources, but originally Green River bottles were sealed with marbles. To get the drink out, customers had to shake the bottle to loosen the marble. This also stirred up the carbonation, and once the marble was dislodged, it made a nice popping sound.
How come I’ve never heard of Schoenhofen Edelweiss?
Schoenhofen Edelweiss survived Prohibition, which was a remarkable achievement since so many breweries did not. (In 1910 there were 1,568 breweries in the United States; by 1934, the year after Prohibition ended, only 714 remained.) Some sources give the credit to Green River, which became so popular in the 1920s that it acquired its own theme song, written by comedian Eddie Cantor. This may be true — Green River was second only to Coca-Cola in Midwest sales from the ’30s through the ’50s, according to the Chicago Food Encyclopedia — but Schoenhofen Edelweiss also had a license to produce near beer.
Schoenhofen Edelweiss finally closed in 1950, possibly a victim of Americans’ changing tastes in beer, from darker brew to light, or maybe due to the consolidation of American breweries after World War II. Two of the buildings of the 17-building complex still stand at 18th Street and Canalport Avenue.
So about the river...
After Schoenhofen Edelweiss went out of business, the rights to Green River were acquired by Sethness Greenleaf, a Chicago-based food flavoring and dying company. The chief executive officer, Barry McRaith, took great pride in the soda and was, according to the obituary that ran in the Chicago Tribune after his death in 2007, known to give away cases of it to anyone who asked, especially after it became a hard-to-find cult item. He also made sure that his favorite restaurants — notably Hackney’s — were supplied amply. McRaith was, in short, a publicity hound.
The Chicago Journeyman Plumber’s Union began dying the Chicago River for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1962. The idea came not from McRaith, but from Stephen M. Bailey, a Plumber’s Union rep who Mayor Richard J. Daley, another proud Irishman, had appointed co-chair of the parade. Originally, the plumbers used the same dye they used to detect impurities in water; as soon as it came across something nasty, the orange powder would turn bright green. And, as historian Shermann Dilla Thomas puts it, “if you know anything about the Chicago River, you know that thing is polluted.”
But the oil-based dye was also toxic and left the river bright green for nearly a month, and environmentalists were not happy, the Tribune reported in a 1995 look back at the history of river-dying. So McRaith and Sethness Greenleaf gallantly stepped in with a vegetable-based dye. How poetic that the company that made Green River also made the dye to turn an actual river green!
Does Sethness Greenleaf still provide the dye for the river?
Nope. The city uses a more environmentally-friendly dye these days. Sethness Greenleaf sold the rights to Green River sometime in the ’80s and was itself sold in 2011 to a European conglomerate, Synergy Flavors, four years after McRaith’s death.
Who owns Green River now?
Sprecher’s, a Milwaukee brewer that’s famous for its root beer. Though Green River isn’t as easy to find these days as it was 100 years ago, it’s still available at Jewel, Walmart, and many, many other grocery and convenience stores in Chicago, especially around St. Patrick’s Day, responsible for a third of its yearly sales. The syrup is still available, too: the Little Goat Diner in the West Loop is serving Green River floats this week, and some soda fountains, notably Lagomarcino’s in Davenport, where the whole thing began, have it on tap year-round.
What about that Creedence Clearwater Revival song?
John Fogarty admitted to taking the name for the song from the soda, but the Chicago Food Encyclopedia notes that he was actually inspired by Putah Creek in Winters, California, where he grew up.