By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff
SOUTH EASTON, Mass. — The outside air sags with midday heat, and it’s hard to believe that, beneath our feet, lies a 6,000-year-old mineral spring that is a cool 45 degrees — the water from which is being pumped and used to make old-time soda pop.
Christine Bertarelli, who owns Simpson Spring with husband James, is leading a small group on a tour of one of the oldest independent bottling operations in the country, and she describes characters from Simpson Spring's past as if she were speaking of old friends.
Much of the building out of which Simpson Spring currently operates is an homage to the company's past; artifacts like a hand-operated bottle capper give visitors a peek into the country's industrial past; there's also a lovingly preserved laboratory with stately built-in glass-faced cabinets, where, years ago, soda flavors were developed.
The Bertarellis bought Simpson Spring in 1989, and the company is in every sense a family operation, with James mixing the soda flavors by hand and the couple's sons Matt and Dan pitching in to help around the plant.
“My father-in-law and husband bought the property, and next thing I know we’re in the water and soda business,” Bertarelli said with a laugh.
In an age when giant beverage companies are muscling small bottling operations out of the market with the sheer might of their advertising budgets, Bertarelli likes to stress that Simpson Spring water is unique in that it is from a single source, unlike, say, Nestlé-owned Poland Spring, which comes from multiple sources, none of them from the company's eponymous spring, which dried up in 1967.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in order to be called "spring water,” a product has to be either "collected at the point where water flows naturally to the earth's surface or from a borehole that taps into the underground source."
At Simpson Spring, visitors can peer right into that source. Inside the hulking wood-sided building that houses Simpson Spring’s bottling operations, in a elegant tiled room which was built in the 1920s, the spring surfaces.
Water is pumped from this room directly a into a venous system of pipes that take the water to various parts of the building, where it is first ozonated and then, depending on the finished product, carbonated or flavored.
In the history of Simpson Spring, the spring has never been over pumped, and the owners have been good stewards of both the spring and the surrounding 50 acres of land.
“We don’t want to pump out of the ground but out of the spring. And we don’t want to pump it too low. But we haven’t had that problem yet because we’ve had so much rain,” Bertarelli said. “We’re regulated by DEP, and we give reports of how much we pull out, but we’re not up to capacity at the moment; we wish we were!”
Driving down Route 138, a passerby might miss Simpson Spring. The company’s bottling operation sits well off the main drag, at the end of a narrow road flanked by towering pines. In recent years, Bertarelli has beefed up outreach and social media efforts to put Simpson Spring on the map.
She’s banking on a mix of nostalgia, outreach and the popularity of the buy-local movement to introduce customers to Simpson Spring, which was once a major player in the American beverage industry.
In 1830, Samuel Simpson bought the spring and the surrounding land; he farmed that land for 50 years until his grandson-in-law Frederick Howard realized the commercial value of the spring water and he started selling it to workers at nearby Brockton shoe factories.
Before long, Howard started experimenting with carbonation, spring water and natural flavorings, coming up with fanciful creations such as nerve tonic. Howard owned the company until the late 1920s, when it was bought by the White family.
The years leading up to World War II saw the company’s heyday, when Simpson Spring enjoyed an exclusive account with Macy’s in Manhattan. Before sugar rationing during the second World War, the third floor of Simpson Spring used to sag under the weight of some 90,000 pounds of sugar.
The company also bottled Moxie soda from 1941 until 1988, just before the Bertarelli’s bought the company from the Whites.
Looking to past for greener future
Aside from its mineral water, which the company bottles in plastic, Simpson Spring uses reusable glass bottles for all its carbonated beverages.
For a while, Simpson Spring flirted with putting soda in plastic bottles, but customers hated it.
Relying on its customers to return glass bottles to redeem their 25-cent deposit and on a 60-year-old beast of a bottle washer — ”We just pray it doesn’t break down,” Bertarelli said — the company reuses its bottles. Simpson Spring has, in essence, created its own bottle bill, and it's working.
“Massachusetts will never raise that five-cent deposit,” Bertarelli said. “It’s a hidden tax; if they raise it to 25 cents people will actually return the bottles; if it’s just a nickel people will throw the bottles away and (the state) keeps the unclaimed funds.”
In addition to reusing its glass bottles, Simpson Spring also washes and reuses its 5- and 3-gallon containers that it sells and delivers to homes and offices. Customers can also bring their own jugs and fill them by hand for 25 cents a gallon.
Beyond promoting its own product, Simpson Spring has become a cheerleader for other local businesses by creating The Marketplace at Simpson Spring, where, every Saturday, local businesses congregate to sell their wares and promote their services.
“We’re trying to make it a community thing with businesses helping out businesses," Bertarelli said. "That’s what I’m all about promoting small business; It’s a little different than a farmers market."
With its 12 flavors of soda, three flavors of sparkling water and plain mineral water, and with an eye toward fostering sustainability and the local economy, Simpson Springs hopes to introduce more people to its products and its practices.
In some cases it's a reintroduction.
When she tables at farmers markets, Bertarelli said, “People come up and tell me beautiful stories. The best thing is when they say, ‘It reminds me of my childhood.’ That’s the best compliment.”