All it took was a box of old Vernors bottles in his parents' garage to focus Keith Wunderlich's interest in Detroit's history strictly on paraphernalia from the city's iconic ginger ale maker.
Some 30 years later, his collection covers his basement's walls, and a Vernors soda fountain has center stage. He turned his passionate collecting into a book -- "Vernors Ginger Ale" -- due out later this month. The book provides a history and photos of the little soda pop company with the big reputation.
"I've always been interested in Detroit history and the various companies that came out of the city, and at one point was interested in collecting lots of things that were from Detroit," said Wunderlich, a Troy resident whose day job is as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for L'Anse Creuse Public Schools. "That got out of hand quickly."
He even started a Vernors collectors club and Web site -- www.wowway.com/~vernors -- for fellow Vernors fans. But it was a gift, a book about another famous Detroit company, Sanders, that started him thinking about writing the history of Vernors.
"I thought if anyone could write about Vernors, I could," Wunderlich said. He said his publisher was excited by the subject, a departure from the usual collection of local histories.
"It's just a unique title for us," said Teresa Simmons of Arcadia, the book's publicity manager. "Most of them are about small local communities and this one just takes it one step further. It's looking at how many communities this ginger ale has affected."
James Vernor was a pharmacist and was dabbling in various combinations. According to Wunderlich, Vernor left to serve in the Civil War for four years, and he tapped into a keg with his 19-ingredient ginger ale when he returned.
The result was the distinctive flavor he was searching for, and Vernors was born in 1866. Vernors and Hires Root Beer are the oldest continuously produced soda pops in the United States.
Vernor first sold his ginger ale at his pharmacy at 235 Woodward, and later out of his plant at the foot of Woodward. In 1966, the family sold the company and after a
series of sales, Cadbury Schweppes bought it.
"We love Keith's passion for the iconic Vernors brand," said Matt Smith, Vernors brand director for Cadbury Schweppes' Americas Beverages.
Wunderlich tapped into metro Detroit's fondness for the soft drink when he wrote the company's history. He started the project thinking his collection of old photos would be sufficient. He soon learned he would need even more.
"Filling a book up with photographs is a little more difficult than I anticipated," Wunderlich said. But with assistance from the Burton Collection in the Detroit Public Library, the Manning Brothers collection in the Palms Building in Detroit and contributions from other collectors, he managed to pull the book together.
"I really hope it brings back some memories for folks," he said.
Wunderlich, 51, said he thinks the most satisfying part of writing the book will come after it hits area bookstores. "That's when I get to meet people and they tell me their Vernors stories ... things I'm a little too young to remember."