BAYONNE, NJ - Richard Wisolmerski wasn’t sure anyone would want the thousands of pieces of memorabilia he had stored in the basement of the former National Soda Company on 21st Street in Bayonne.
As it turns out, scores of people from across the county showed up to take a look at what he had to sell in an estate sale this week.
National Soda, one of the last old-time soda companies in Bayonne and the region, closed its doors in 2017, but had largely remained untouched up until Wisolmerski sold the three buildings. Inside, the place remained a living piece of history from an era when small soda manufacturers were frequent sites.
“There were at least eight other soda companies in Bayonne that I can remember when I started as a kid,” Wisolmerski said.
And even though Wisolmerski shut down the manufacturing of soda to concentrate on redistribution of national brands in 1981, the machines still stand with bottles of the company’s signature brand – Bubble Up – as if ready to start up again at any time.
Hundreds of empty bottles filled old style wooden crates. Boxes of pry-off caps leaned against one wall. Scores of seltzer bottles, beer, and soda glasses filled shelves along several walls. Old fashioned soda machines – the kind seen outside 1930s gas stations in classic movies – were found in the basement, and according to Adam Waltz of The Great Estate LLC, still operated.
“We plugged one in and it got cold within 30 minutes,” he said.
Among the numerous pieces of memorabilia was a crank to the original Model T Ford truck the company used to deliver when it first opened.
But not all of the items had to do with the soda business. Historic Victrolas, furniture, even 45 records were among the items available for purchase. There were some original newspapers and magazines from the election and later historic events dealing with President John F. Kennedy. Some of the business owner’s family members were deeply committed to JFK’s vision of America. Also included were a number of sewing machines. Wisolmerski’s grandmother was a seamstress.
Wisolmerski's grandparents originated in Poland and eventually settled into Bayonne after a number of moves, his grandfather starting the company in 1922. Henry Wisolmerski, the founder's son, and Ricahrd's father became the second generation owner. Henry said that both he and his father took over reluctantly, a kind of family tradition depicted in the classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“My father was a top mechanic in the Ford Motor Company,” Wisolmerski said. “He began to work here when Ford moved its plant to Mahwah and my mother didn’t want to move out of Bayonne.”
His father became a kind of Mr. Fix It because he could repair almost anything.
Wisolmerski had ambitions other than taking over the business from his father.
“I attended St. Peter’s College and was going for my MBA at Seton Hall when my father got ill,” he said.
“My mother was ill, too, and so was the company’s best employee. I was looking to get into business, maybe as a consultant. I came back here to help out,” he said, adding that eventually he, too, took the reins of National Soda.
“This was my life,” Wisolmerski said. “I learned to count and multiply by counting the beer cases when they were unloaded in the beer room,” he said. “When I was about seven, they let me sit in the middle of the delivery truck and shift the gears.”
In his grandfather’s day, the business was located in one building. But Wisolmerski’s father expanded it, taking over the neighboring bakery and other operations in local buildings. City officials said the new property owner has been seeking additional property on that block to redevelop into possible residential units– although no plans have yet been submitted.
The soda business was not an easy life, Wisolmerski told TAPinto Bayonne. Lifting cases of soda, as well as the hundred-pound bags of sugar needed to make the soda took a toll physically. During his grandfather’s time, the business operated seven days a week.
“My father stopped doing business on Sundays, I later cut the business down to five days,” Wisolmerski said.
Even then, Wisolmerski had to come in at 5 a.m. and work until all the orders were done, literally back breaking work that eventually led him to retiring two years ago.
The company was, for many young people, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, a place where they started out getting jobs.
Councilman Salvatore Gullace said he remembers Wisolmerski’s mother in the second-floor office window doing books each time he passed or came to the place to buy soda.
“Most locals came there to get their soda,” he recalled.
Wisolmerski said he’s not selling off everything, instead he is keeping some of the more personal items.
“I don’t care about the Pepsi or Coke things, I just wanted to keep the National Soda things,” he said.
For a time, National Soda has established a brand called Bubble Up that rivaled the Seven-Up brand, as well as a smaller bottled item called “Smile.”
Asked if he would do it all again and follow in his father’s footsteps.
“Yes, I would,” he said. “I had two heroes growing up: Mickey Mantle and my father, and not always in that order.”