SWEET DRINK: Lemonade People and Community Bottlers – By Dr. Vibert Cambridge

– Profiles of a Few Entrepreneurs

By  August 8, 2021 

The previously mentioned 2020 Facebook communication and in-depth, in-person conversations with family members about “sweet drink” led to the selection of the individuals who are profiled in this installment.  The emerging map indicates that bottling plants have been present in all three of Guyana’s counties at various times during the 20th century.

The current concentration of sweet drink bottling capacity on the East Bank of Demerara is the outcome of the strategic decisions of two of Guyana’s leading private corporations. However, it must be noted that, from 1914 to the 1970s, there were several players in the sweet-drink marketplace. The owners of these establishments are fondly referred to as the Lemonade People. Their importance is not limited to the sweet-drink story. They also played a role in entrepreneurialism and industrialization. As is the case for Wieting and Richter, much has yet to be learned about the Lemonade People. What follows is a contribution to this task.

DEMERARA

Alfred Mohamed

Hamid Mohamed (Photograph by the author)

Hamid Mohamed

According to Hamid Mohamed, his father, Alfred, entered the sweet drink business in 1935 through a partnership with Mr. Azeez in the Excelsior Soda Factory in Adelaide Street, Charlestown, Georgetown. By 1940, Alfred Mohamed had become the sole proprietor of the Verdun Aerated Water Factory, located at 28 Ketley Street, in Charlestown. The Verdun Aerated Water Factory was founded by Fitzherbert Devonshire, an immigrant from Trinidad. When he died, the factory was operated by his wife, Gertrude Carmen Devonshire, who was also from Trinidad. After she remarried to Arthur Cyril Gibson, she sold the business to Alfred Mohamed, who moved it “just around the corner” to 17 Broad Street where it remained until it ceased operations in 2011.

 PHOTO: Alfred Mohamed (Photograph courtesy of Hamid Mohamed)

When Alfred Mohamed died in 1961, the Verdun Soda Factory was one of the leading small-lemonade bottlers in British Guiana. His son, Ayube, took over the reins of the company and, “with much determination, improved the company considerably.” Hamid Mohamed, Alfred’s youngest son, joined the company in 1970. Together with his older brother Ayube, he managed the business until its closure on January 26, 2011.

Verdun Aerated Water Factory, Broad Street, Georgetown (Photograph courtesy of Hamid Mohamed)

Over the years, the company changed production technologies, expanded its product line, maintained a loyal customer base, and established a presence in the Guyanese diaspora in New York. This company’s story is a valuable illustration of the Guyanese sweet drink experience, especially its role in the nation’s wider economic, industrial, and technological life. It also provides insights into the Lemonade People, a unique band of entrepreneurs who “faced many challenges and knew how to take care of themselves.”

Mr. DeAbreu

Also located in Georgetown during the 1940s and 1950s was the DeAbreu Aerated Water Factory (Guiana Aerated Water Factory). It was situated “at the southwestern corner of Regent and Albert Streets.”  According to Maureen Cuthbertson, the owner of the factory was an affable Portuguese immigrant who spoke Portuguese. She could not recall his first name.

She recalled the presence of other immigrants in the community surrounding Mr. DeAbreu’s factory. She recalled names such as Fernandes, Pereira, Chow-How, and Cheong. The factory, which was part of a lively community dominated by retail commerce, attracted clients from the contiguous wards of Alberttown, Lacytown, and Cummingsburg. The community also included schools, churches, grocery stores, cake shops, milk vendors, black pudding vendors, and rum shops. Mr. DeAbreu’s company bottled small and large lemonades.

Other lemonade bottlers in Georgetown included Bottlers Ltd., located at 56 Durban and Hardina Streets, Wortmanville. In addition to producing lemonades, this factory also bottled Canada Dry Ginger Ale. Unfortunately, the name(s) of the owner(s) are not available. In Robb Street, Lacytown (near Camp Street) was the Atlantic Soda Water Factory, owned by the Lee family. It specialized in small lemonades.

Near the Georgetown Ferry Stelling, at Water and Schumaker Streets, was the Russian Bear Bar. It is remembered as the purveyor of Russian Bear lemonade and one of the best blends of Guyanese rums and. According to Bryan Rodrigues and Michael DeFreitas, other sweet drink flavors were produced under the Russian Bear label. They included “lime juice and soda, sorrel, cream soda, and ginger beer.” Other than sorrel and cream soda, the flavors were “mixers”—flavors to complement rums. The Russian Bear Bar, with its bottling plant, was located in the busy waterfront or dockland area, which was characterized by the thirst-generating manual labor jobs of cartmen and stevedores.  We will subsequently discuss some of the reasons why the Lemonade People also bottled other flavors.

Joseph “Yossi” Willems

Joseph “Yossi” Willems’ factory, the Willems Lemonade Factory, was located at Golden Grove, East Coast Demerara. His granddaughter, Barbara Malins-Smith, provided the following recollection:

My grandfather, Yossi (Joseph) Willems, owned and operated Willems Lemonade Factory from 1916 until his death in 1963, at Golden Grove E.C.D. I have the best memories of spending August holidays with him at Golden Grove, fascinated by the noisy factory run by an enormous generator, and the conveyor belt moving the bottles of grape, pineapple, strawberry, lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit syrup-filled aerated sweet liquid to be sealed and labeled, then packed onto crates, and stacked onto the truck for delivery all along the east coast.

As was the case with other sweet drink entrepreneurs, Yossi Willems had other businesses. He owned and operated one of the first petrol stations in Golden Grove.  Willems was also a member of one of the few Jewish families living in British Guiana during the 1940s and 1950s. His granddaughter amplified this in a response to a person who had claimed to be from the only Jewish family in British Guiana during World War II:

I must correct you. Yours was not the only Jewish family living in Guyana (British Guiana) at that time, granted the majority were not religious, but they were Jewish, nevertheless … [There] were the Krawkowski, Van Batenburg, Kellman, Zitman, Schneiderman, [and] Schwelt families and many more. There were several other families who kept a low profile, as it were, about their Jewish antecedents. They never converted, and many quietly celebrated the high holidays. There were (Portuguese) families, many with Sephardic names, that existed one foot in Judaism and one in Catholicism. Many lit the shabbat candles on Friday evening, and come Sunday, they attended mass. Ironically, today many descendants of these conversions have returned to their Jewish roots and now practice Judaism in countries like Canada and the U.S. Guyana was a magical place for a child, and I am happy to know you carry fond memories of the country, as do I.

H. E. Reis
  • PHOTO: Crown cap for the Belfield Aerated Water Factory operated by H.E. Reis (Photograph accessed online)

Another lemonade bottling plant on the East Coast was the Belfield Aerated Water Factory at Belfield. It was owned by H. E. Reis, the grandfather of Clifford Reis, C.C.H., the current managing director of Banks DIH. According to Sir Ronald Sanders, an in-law of H. E. Reis:

[T]he Belfield factory of H. E. Reis, produced small and large (green) bottles of lemonade, as well as soda water, cream soda, a red drink (called “Manpower”) and an orange drink. The ownership of the factory passed from H. E. Reis to his youngest son, Joseph Reis, in the early 1950s.

West Demerara

Hemwant Persaud, recalls a lemonade factory located on New Road, Vreed-en-Hoop. This factory bottled the London Pride lemonade. Bobbi Walker, a niece of the proprietor, remembers a primarily manual operation. For example, she said she enjoyed using flour paste to affix the London Pride labels to the small lemonade bottles. Although defunct, the location, referred to as the “lemonade factory,” is a stop along the local mini-bus route. Gloria Corbin remembered Khan’s Soft Drink Factory at Vergenoegen, West Coast Demerara, and one further up the West Coast of Demerara at Meeten Meer Zorg, West Coast Demerara owned by the Chee-A-Tows.

ESSEQUIBO

Hemwant Persaud recalls a lemonade factory in Affiance, Essequibo.  Joseph Holder remembers a lemonade factory on Second Avenue in Bartica, at the confluence of the Essequibo, Mazaruni, and Potaro Rivers, during the 1940s and 1950s:

I think the name of the owner was Khan. It was a small plant in which each bottle was filled by a hand operation. As far as I can remember, it was called lemonade, but the bottle was not labelled. It was probably sold only in Bartica.

BERBICE

Until 2008, getting to New Amsterdam, the capital of Berbice, required taking a ferry from Rosignol on the West Bank of the Berbice River. Participants in the 2020 Facebook conversations recalled a lemonade factory, R. A. Flavors, operated by Mumtaz Ali (Osman) in Rosignol. It remains in operation.
  • PHOTO: A bottle produced by the Popular Aerated Water Factory operated by Antonio Soares, Berbice (Photograph courtesy of Andre Greaves)
However, the oldest bottler in Berbice might have been the Popular Aerated Water Factory operated by Antonio Soares. Based on a bottle bearing the company name and Customs & Excise notices in the British Guiana Official Gazette, it can be concluded that the factory was in operation around 1906.
  • PHOTO: Roy and Norma Seabra, operators of the Excelsior Soda Water Factory — Seabra Lemonade Factory (Photograph courtesy of Lisa Nero)

By the 1940s, Berbice had several bottlers. In New Amsterdam, there was the Excelsior Soda Water Factory (Seabra Lemonade Factory), owned and operated by Roy and Norma Seabra. According to their granddaughter, Lisa Nero, the primary product was lemonade and, occasionally, cream soda.  Like “Yossi” Willems, the Seabras also operated a gas station. Another New Amsterdam bottler was the J&D Factory located near to the Town Hall. It was jointly owned by Mr. Jugal Persaud and Mr. Dow.  In Rose Hall was the Crown Spot Factory, founded by Persaud Jaijairam in the 1950s. According to a newspaper article:

Persaud Jaijairam started making lemonade on a small scale and used to sell the thirst-quencher on his bicycle, but as the years went by, the business evolved until now the product is sold throughout Berbice. The company has been passed on to Charles Jaijairam, who now manages it with help from his sons.

In addition, in the 2020 Facebook conversations, Gem Madhoo noted that Joe’s Lemonade factory was located at Letter Kenny, a village before Rose Hall, on the Corentyne. Ralph Seeram recalled the competition among the Berbice bottlers: “I can recall the bottle wars between the Berbice factories. Soda bottles were recycled. They used to break up each other’s bottles, so they won’t have enough bottles to produce soda plus driving up their costs.”

As has been presented, the Lemonade people and their community-based bottling plants were located in urban, rural, and hinterland areas in all three counties. In addition to the use of the iconic brown and dark green 6 oz bottles, there were technological similarities. They all might have started with manual equipment and subsequently mechanized their operations.  We will explore this production history in the next installment.

SELECTED REFERENCES

Pappanah, D. “Rose Hall Town.” Stabroek News, June 24, 2012. Available online at: https://www.stabroeknews.com/2012/06/24/features/rose-hall-town/?fbclid=IwAR0vLOgIj3NaXuBYPsyO_r6QVwhwWvpJeLbwqqfA7FSoQ4a0Ug994wktX70. Accessed, June 28, 2012.

Cambridge, V. Facebook conversation, “The Geography of ‘Sweet Drinks’ in Guyana” launched April 21, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/vibert.cambridge/posts/10157045271290849?comment_id=10158058760755849&notif_id=1624887773436591&notif_t=feed_comment&ref=notif

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Comments

  • Rita Bowen  On 08/23/2021 at 3:19 am

    Lovely to read this – brings back fond memories of the home town and the sun xperiences

  • Lorraine  On 08/23/2021 at 11:15 am

    Very interesting. I remember as a child in the 1960s drinking the lemonade in 6 oz green bottles along with a dhalpouri with sour in the middle rolled up for my after school snack. It cost ten cents for both. Great memories.

  • wally n  On 08/23/2021 at 11:26 am

    Help me here, you took away the bottle, was there a charge, I am almost sure I took small lemonade and two cheese rolls into the cinema, don’t remember the bottle arrangement.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/23/2021 at 4:54 pm

    The writers of the following want to remain anonymous:

    Clifford Reis worked with me at Banks DIH …
    His grandfather had a lemonade factory in Belfield ECD
    He is now Chairman at Banks DIH.
    Clifford was educated in USA

    The cream always rises to the top!

    I remember Clifford started with DIH as a salesman on a Pepsi/ I-Cee DIH Truck
    selling up and down East Coast Demerara …

    My Old Man used to buy soft drinks from him to re-stock the shop …..

    …. I was about 7-8 at that time

  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/23/2021 at 5:15 pm

    Clifford Reis of Banks DIH and How Dictatorship is Born

    Freddie Kissoon | Kaieteur News [Posted Jan 2019]

    During the 2019 annual general meeting of Banks DIH, its CEO, Mr. Clifford Reis told the attendees a sad story. It is sad because it graphically demonstrates how dictatorship is born. From every corner of the globe over centuries, dictatorship consolidated itself because citizens were afraid to speak on the wrong and terribly unjust things the government did to them, their families, their fellow citizens, national institutions and the country as a whole.

    As I write, there is one country on Planet Earth whose citizens aren’t going to let dictatorship blossom. It is FRANCE. Already weeks of huge demonstrations have resulted in the French president reversing many unpopular policies. The United States isn’t going to become a dictatorship even if Trump wins a second term. The people of the US are not going to let Trump do whatever he wants and whatever his administrators want to do.

    Tyranny grows and becomes a monster that devours you if you do not speak up. This is the lesson of history that humans just do not want to learn.

    Reis told his audience that his company’s profits take a dent whenever the National Assembly is in session because the Banks DIH outlets in the vicinity of parliament suffer. He went on to add that the Christmas season is the best time of the year for those outlets but last month it was badly hit by the parliamentary sessions.

    Why is that so? Because when Parliament meets, six streets are cordoned off. The restrictions overflow way into Sussex Street in Albouystown and the Bourda Market area. This is not what I have been told. This is the traffic jam that I have been caught in. This is what is obvious to anyone going downtown when parliament is meeting.

    What Reis went on to add is going to shock you if you are a stranger to Guyana and you come from a democratic country. He said repeated attempts to the relevant authorities to have the situation eased were without success. Now here is the part you need to reflect on.

    Banks DIH is one of the Caribbean’s enduring private companies. In Guyana its managers are well known in the corridors of power. Historically, the company has always been close to the PNC. In fact, this columnist knows that historically, too, the company has always been generous to the PNC during election campaigns. Now if they can ignore a powerful entity like Banks DIH, imagine how contemptuous they are of small business people.

    This columnist makes no apologies and will make no apologies for his support of the no-confidence motion (NCM). This columnist makes no apologies for accepting that the NCM was validly tabled and is a legal process. This columnist makes no apologies for wanting to have the power of the PNC and APNU+AFC reduced by a configuration in parliament that prevents majority rule by PPP or APNU+AFC. This columnist makes no apologies in his use of the terminology of clowns and jokers in reference to many of those who rule Guyana.

    All of the above is premised on my belief that the previous set and now this present group are not fit to govern this nation. I watched on television where the media was camped out for the vote on Brexit in the British Parliament and traffic flowed as normal.

    Why was that so? Because the Parliament cannot restrict the vehicular movement of millions of British citizens because parliament is in session. There are ways to provide security yet allow for the flow of traffic.

    During the reign of the PPP these extensive street cordons did not exist. But the Guyanese people have allowed this government to do what it wants, a government which has many leaders, just as in the previous one that have foreign citizenship.

    I am typing this article at 3.55 PM, Monday. I live on the Railway Embankment. It is a cemetery at the moment. This is because the CRIC 17 conference is on at the Arthur Chung Convention Centre and all traffic is banned on the Railway Embankment from UG Road to Conversation Tree Road from 7AM to 5PM.

    This is unprecedented asininity. During the morning hours, you can restrict the traffic but allow free flow until an hour before the conference ends where the traffic ranks can perform their operations.

    The conference will last for three days. For three days Guyanese drivers cannot use the Railway Embankment from morning to near sundown. And some of the foreign citizens who run our country are allowed to institute this tyranny because we are a nation of sheep. Guyana is a nation of sheep run by a cabal of clowns.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/23/2021 at 5:23 pm

    The author wrote:

    “What Reis went on to add is going to shock you if you are a stranger to Guyana and you come from a democratic country. He said repeated attempts to the relevant authorities to have the situation eased were without success. Now here is the part you need to reflect on.

    Banks DIH is one of the Caribbean’s enduring private companies. In Guyana its managers are well known in the corridors of power. Historically, the company has always been close to the PNC. In fact, this columnist knows that historically, too, the company has always been generous to the PNC during election campaigns. Now if they can ignore a powerful entity like Banks DIH, imagine how contemptuous they are of small business people.”

    I am a rank outsider and don’t have a vote – but, I was born there …..

    So, I will say this – I hope this nonsense outside the Conference Centre and outside the Parliament when they are in session is resolved by now.

    The saying “Bite the hand that feeds you ….” comes to mind.

    On another note – the author continued:

    “As I write, there is one country on Planet Earth whose citizens aren’t going to let dictatorship blossom. It is FRANCE.”

    As a child in British Guiana, I often heard one Guyanese yelling to another:

    Go to France!!

    Eh – Eh! Now, I know that was a good thing!!

  • Clyde Duncan  On 08/23/2021 at 6:00 pm

    Reginald Chee-A-Tow wrote:

    Thanks for sharing this.I have fond memories of my family’s sweet drink factory at Meten Meer Zorg with its wide range of aerated drinks and delicious flavors.

  • Frank Ewing-Chow  On 09/01/2021 at 12:52 pm

    As a little boy 5-6, I remember a lemonade shop at North Rd & Wellington St. They sold bottled lemonade that had a marble inside the bottle…does anyone know the purpose of the marble, etc, etc.? Thanks. What great memories!!

  • wally n  On 09/01/2021 at 1:26 pm

    That I remember, sealing by pressure?, we destroyed the bottle for the marble geniuses we were, could you take the bottle out of the store then?, I remember taking the lemonade into the cinema.
    Was great memories, we felt we had it all.

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