It was a good drink. It quenched your thirst. It seemed like it satisfied you. Nowadays, some soft drinks you buy make you want another one."
Henry Daniels gave this description of Celo in a 1996 newspaper article about this unique Tampa Bay area beverage. In 1920s-'30s Manatee County, many locals were crazy about Celo, a new celery-flavored soda produced in Tampa.
Celo is described as a refreshing beverage flavored with an essence produced from celery seed. While we may think that a celery-flavored soda is strange or unappetizing today, in the 1920s uniquely flavored sodas and tonics were all the rage.
Soda is often vilified today, but it actually started out in pharmacies and it was viewed as a health tonic. Pharmacists mixed and patented herbal concoctions to make medicines taste better, and many had additional health claims with them. Sarsaparilla, also a major component of root beer, was touted to help with digestive troubles, rheumatism, jaundice and more. Ginger ale was often given for upset stomachs and is still a popular at-home remedy today.
Soon these "medicinal" concoctions were sold for their taste more than their medicinal benefits at pharmacists' elaborate soda fountains. Orange, vanilla, cherry and wintergreen soon became staple flavors at soda fountain counters. Shops were always concocting new recipes, look
ing for the next hip drink.
This is how Tampa Bay area's unusual Celo celery soda became a local favorite. Celo was created by Tampa pharmacist W. Truman Green in his North Franklin Street drug store around 1915. His patented product was a sweet syrup that was stored and shipped in barrels to other druggists.
It did poorly until it began to be bottled in the 1920s.
For a brief time, Celo was bottled in Bradenton in a plant on Manatee Avenue, but it soon became bottled exclusively in Tampa. Peter Harllee Sr. of Palmetto is quoted as remembering that Celo "tasted like celery, very much like plain soda water with a celery flavor. It wasn't like coke or Delaware Punch. It was more like Seven-Up with celery flavor."
Celery was a dominant agricultural crop in Manatee County at this time and the Manatee County Growers Association were proud endorsers of Celo, claiming it was "the drink that is good for your nerves." It was sold in drug stores, vending machines and other businesses all over Manatee County and the Tampa Bay area. For a brief moment, it was incredibly successful. Henry Daniels, sales manager of Fancee Farms in Sarasota, remembered that he would get Celo at the barbershop. "We must have liked it, because there were other drinks there we could have had, like Coca-Cola, but we always got the Celo," he said.
At the height of its popularity, Celo was a featured item at the Second Venetian Nights Festival in early February 1930 at the Bradenton Pier. Celo ice cream and the Hanlon Bakery's Celo cake were huge stars as well as the bottled soda.
In the 1930s, Manatee County residents bought stock in Celo, hoping for it to be the next Coca-Cola, but that didn't pan out. In 1938, the company was sold and their stock became worthless. Celo virtually disappeared overnight.
The unique soda flavor could have been lost forever, but Dr. Brown's still makes a version called Cel-ray and it is frequently found in the New York and South Florida area.
So the taste of celery soda still lives on. If you would like to try a taste of this unusual soda flavor, join us from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 for "Edible Ag" at the Manatee County Agricultural Museum. The event will feature tastes of food products from our local agricultural community.
Melissa Dagenais, curator for the Manatee County Agricultural Museum, loves to discover the odd stories in history. Reach her at Melissa.Dagenais@manateeclerk.com or 941-721-2034.