TROY, Mich. — It started innocently enough for Keith Wunderlich.
"I've always been interested in Detroit history and Detroit products," said Wunderlich, who does double duty as superintendent of New Haven Community Schools and an administrator in the neighboring L'Anse Creuse district.
"Faygo, Better Made, Stroh's, Hudson's . about 30 years ago, I began picking up little bits and pieces of Detroit."
Wunderlich's collection was modest; until one day he made a discovery while rummaging through the garage of his parents' home.
"I stumbled across an old box of Vernor's (Ginger Ale) bottles," he said. " . All of a sudden I had more Vernor's stuff than anything else. I decided to just concentrate on Vernor's."
In the ensuing three decades, Wunderlich's collection grew.
Today, hundreds of bottles, signs, clocks and countless other memorabilia are mounted or displayed in virtually every nook and cranny in the basement of his Troy home.
The collection is both testament to Wunderlich's passion and a shrine to Vernor's, the historic Detroit company and the unique product it produces.
Wunderlich will tell you how Detroit pharmacist James Vernor developed, almost by accident, the secret formula that would become Vernor's Ginger Ale.
According to Wunderlich, and the company, Vernor left a batch of his syrup in an oak barrel for four years when he was called to join the Civil War. When he returned, he discovered the syrup's taste had improved with the aging. Vernor's Ginger Ale was born, and for decades the company advertised the drink as barrel-aged for four years.
While the story's accuracy has been questioned, the success of the soft drink company is well-documented. For well over a century, Vernor's and Detroit were practically synonymous. Wunderlich has memorabilia to back up the claim.
"Anything that says, 'Detroit's Drink' is really rare," he said.
Among his favorite items:
— A soda dispenser that dates to about 1910;
— A two-foot tall Vernor's gnome that was part of a factory tour of the bottling plant in the 1920s;
— A James Vernor business card that reads, "pharmacist and florist."
— Countless signs, clocks and other items bearing the Vernor's logo.
The collection even includes a couple of coin-operated (10 cents) soft drink cooler/dispensers that still function.
"It eats up about $25 a month in electricity so they're not turned on very often," he said.
Wunderlich's wife, Mary, indulges her husband's passion, provided he sticks to one unbreakable rule. The collection is restricted to the basement.
"It can't be on the main floor," she said.
Mary concedes the family — the Wunderlichs are parents of four children — are used to the Vernor's shrine, but when visitors see it for the first time, they are impressed.
"To see their reaction is really fun," she said.
Several years ago, three descendants of James Vernor heard about the collection and paid a visit.
"They wanted everything," Wunderlich said.
Wunderlich said he can't put a monetary value on his collection. Not that it matters. He has no plans to sell any of it.
"The money isn't (as important) as the history," he said.
Information from: The Macomb Daily, http://www.macombdaily.com