Why Santa has a Pepsi in His Hand

by Arlen L. Sheldrake

Two items in the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation blog and newsletter, Portland’s steam locomotiveheroes (November) and The 4449 Pepsi Connection (October) and this picture of Santa sitting on the moon hanging from the ORHC ceiling holding a Pepsi can as part of the Santa’s Enginehouse decoration prompted some questioning of whether or not Pepsi was in fact the first corporate contributor to the American Freedom Train Foundation.

This questioning prompted my inquiry to Ross Rowland, founder and implementor of the American Freedom Train asking for the facts. Sometimes what we know as fact turns out to be fiction and vice versa….so my objective was to pin this down once and for all. Here is the November 26, 2020 response from Ross:

“Yes, Pepsi was definitely the first sponsor. I made a total of 54 corporate presentations from late 1970 through December 23, 1973 attempting to get 5 corporate co-sponsors to each put up $6 million (2020 dollars) to fund the building of the train, acquisition of the artifacts, selecting and contracting for the 138 display sites, hiring a ships company of 90 men & women to man the train through the country etc. One of the 54 “no” I got was from GM who I had done a Freedom Train pitch to in 1972.

At 1pm on December 23, 1973 I made my 55th pitch to a room full of Pepsi execs at their Purchase New York campus and they said “yes”. They also asked me to come back the next day (Christmas Eve 1973) and show the presentation to their CEO Don Kendall which of course I gladly did. Mr. Kendall received it with enthusiasm and invited me to accompany him into his huge private office where he proceeded to pick up one of 6 phones on the wall behind his desk. He dialed a number and began a conversation which started out about Christmas and his golf game. Then he proceeded to tell the other end “we’ve finally found a bicentennial project worthy of putting our name on and it’s called The American Freedom Train. It’s being organized by a young commodities broker Ross Rowland. Please tell the National Archives, Library of Congress and the Smithsonian to give them whatever artifacts they want to put on display cars to help tell the 200 year American story.” Then they talked about golf again and their kids etc.

When Mr. Kendall hung up he turned around to face me and said “that was President Nixon and he said to tell you that he will call those 3 agencies today and when your team is ready to come to Washington to arrange for the loans of the artifacts to call Rose XXXXX in my office at 202-xxx-xxxx and she’ll set them up”. That’s exactly what we did some months later after Barry Howard finished writing the 10 display car script so he knew what he wanted in artifacts to amplify his narrative. Thanks to having those 3 institutions on board we were able to get the rest of the American museum community behind us and lend us a total of 512 ORIGINAL artifacts many of which were priceless. Those 512 “things” is what made the AFT a “must see” when it was in your hometown and the principal reason we were sold out before we got there in most of our 138 display towns.

We will use the same “secret sauce” to make sure that AFT 2.0 is equally successful.

Mr. Kendall during that Christmas Eve meeting with me also promised that immediately after the holidays he would take me “by the hand” and help get the other 4 co-sponsors. He did exactly that and in 3 months (January – March 1974) we had them. In order of joining they were Kraft Foods, Prudential, GM and Atlantic Richfield energy. All of their CEO’s were personal friends of Mr. Kendall’s. The pitch to GM was done in their BOARD room filled with about 50 top execs from across the company, it was chaired by CEO Gerstenberg and included the VP-PR who had turned me down 2 years earlier. At the conclusion of my 20 minute pitch Gerstenberg said “thank you very much Ross for an excellent show.” He then turned to Mr. Kendall and said “thanks so much Don for bringing this wonderful project to our attention. I think it’s got General Motors written all over it”. He then turned to the room full of GM execs and they all nodded their agreement (including the VP-PR). Big corporations are just like the Army….what the 4 star general likes EVERYONE likes it !!! And so it went.

GM was one of our most energetic sponsors and were a major supporter in all our display towns.”

Many thanks to Ross Rowland for his extensive and informative response and to Wes Camp, and Jack Wheelihan for their contributions.