Tom Smith Opens Soda Museum on Main Street in December 2023

The Soda Museum, located on St. Charles Historic Main Street, features collectibles from various soda companies throughout the years. Companies such as Coke, Pepsi, Fanta and other small businesses.
The Soda Museum, located on St. Charles Historic Main Street, features collectibles from various soda companies throughout the years. Companies such as Coke, Pepsi, Fanta and other small businesses.
Credit to Payton Johnston
Tom Smith recently was able to achieve his life long dream of opening a soda museum. The Soda Museum can be located on Main Street and doubles as half museum, half arcade. (By Taylor Saale)
Catching a Dream in a Bottle

A dream that has taken a lifetime of collecting and saving has been capped off in the opening of the Soda Museum. Tom Smith has been collecting soda memorabilia for nearly 40 years and has turned a lifelong dream into reality. With a seemingly never-ending collection of items, Smith has his life’s work on full display with lots to do, see and drink.

“My wife’s dream in retirement is to be able to drink her coffee and watch the river,” Smith said. “My dream of retirement is to hug a Coke machine.”

On the first floor, the museum showcases some of Smith’s favorite pieces as well as interchangeable exhibits that keep the museum fresh and new for each visit. Smith’s first item he ever collected can even be viewed on full display. On the second floor, visitors can see more soda memorabilia and find obscure items such as the short-lived Tab drink created by Coca-Cola. In the basement is an arcade that houses vintage games where families can play and then enjoy a meal and a soda. However, his favorite item is one yet to be showcased at the museum. 

“[This summer, there] will be a special exhibit that will be in a back room that will take full around-the-clock security,” Smith said. “So, if you can think of what the Coca-Cola company would least like someone to show, that is what it will be.”

At 10, Smith’s first piece was a Coca-Cola serving tray which kickstarted a lifelong obsession. Smith’s collecting didn’t stop at soda, however. He also enjoyed other vintage items, especially ones representative of his youth, those being arcade games. When he was young, Smith enjoyed combining his two interests, soda and games to create the ultimate hangout spot. 

“My friends would keep coming over because it was a cool place to hang out because we had free soda and a pinball machine,” Smith said. 

As Smith got older, he knew his dream was not to be in the political consulting business forever, however, it was an interest that he pursued into his adult years. 

“I started volunteering for a couple of different political campaigns,” Smith said. “I’ve worked in the world of politics ever since. I started my own political consulting business after seeing the way that campaigns were wasting money and so I knew that I could do it cheaper and I felt I could do it better.”

But in the back of his mind, soda was always there waiting. He would continue to go to estate sales and auctions and even on “junking trips” with his father. More than just a hobby, Smith would devote his spare time to getting his hands on any piece of soda memorabilia he could find. In the 1980s, he even sent out letters to members of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club in hopes that some would be willing to sell their treasures. Even today, Smith still reaps the rewards of his efforts from back in the day. 

“I would send out a letter saying that I’m interested in buying the whole collections and so I would get some phone calls,” Smith said. “So, I even put a little thing on there, save this letter, you know, anytime you or your family want to liquidate your stuff, give me a call. My last collection I bought from letters I sent out in the ’80s was last year.”

After 40 years of collecting, Smith was finally ready to move forward on his dream of opening a museum. Being a St. Charles native, Smith was familiar with Main Street and particularly 126 North Main St. A former shoe store, Smith had had his eye on the place and knew when it went up for sale it was time to strike. After much negotiation, he bought the place in April of 2021 and was in for grueling repairs. 

“There were seven or eight different species of animals living in there,” Smith said. “There was three feet of standing water in the basement, the entire ceiling had fallen to the ground. It was in really, really, really bad shape.”

After a few years worth of renovation, the Soda Museum was finally unveiled to the public on Nov. 30, 2023. The reaction from Smith and his companions in the journey was overwhelming. 

“It was very emotional,” Smith said. “I’ve been wanting to do this for 35 years and the day had finally come.”

Carolyn Gertsch is an employee at the Soda Museum and has been a friend of Smith’s for 17 years. Gertsch recognizes the effort Smith has put into the museum and enjoys being a part of the history.

“I think it’s amazing and I love it so much for him,” Gertsch said. “Personally, I love history and these objects all hold so much history. Not only of soda but of America itself.”

But beyond the flashy items and expensive collectables, Smith hopes for something more when visitors come to the museum. 

“My strongest goal is for someone to come in here and to remember something as a child,” Smith said. “So, whether it is a 30 or 40-year-old, or a 90-year-old coming in here and saying ‘I remember that,’ and have it bring joy to them in some way.”

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