The headline of the Waco Tribune-Herald on Sunday, April 19, 2015 — “Time short for historic structures,” by longtime Trib staff writer J.B. Smith — poses a relevant question: “What if the Waco tornado 62 years ago had ripped out the Waco Suspension Bridge, the ALICO building, the Hippodrome and the McLennan County Courthouse along with the hundreds of other buildings destroyed? Would Waco still be Waco?”
Indeed, what if the historic Dr Pepper building, for instance, had not been restored? Both the ALICO building and the Suspension Bridge swayed in the furious wind but refused to go down. The Level 5 tornado that destroyed an entire block in the heart of Waco’s business district slammed into the 1906 “Home of Dr Pepper” on its way down Fifth Street. It took out the 14-inch-thick west side wall, parapet and cupola, causing major damage to what we now know as the Dr Pepper Museum & Free Enterprise Institute.
We’re talking about the home of the nation’s oldest major soft drink,
Monday marks the 62nd anniversary of the day a deadly tornado changed life forever in Waco. It also marks the 24th anniversary of restoration of the building dubbed the Dr. Pepper Museum & Free Enterprise Institute. Its rebirth offers not just fame but positive recognition for Waco. More than 1.4 million people from all over the world have come to explore this building named to the National Registry of Historic Places.
As we consider the fate of historic homes and buildings in our city, it’s relevant the restoration of the Dr Pepper building did not come without effort. It is the result of a unique partnership between the city of Waco and Dr Pepper corporate leaders — specifically, a vision by Dr Pepper Chairman W.W. “Foots” Clements. Restoration of the heavily damaged building was a major task. The west side of the building still shows a major scar where the tornado hit — forever a reminder of that fateful day, May 11, 1953.
The Free Enterprise Institute part of the building reminds us of the opportunities restoration and renovation bring: It was a significant part of Foots’ dream to teach future generations about our nation’s unique economic system. More than 25,000 young folks from all over the country have come to learn about free enterprise, create their own soft drinks and market them. Its impact today is immeasurable.
We can be proud of the vision, persistence and hard work that went into this restoration effort. In the final analysis, it reminds us that the key to the future sometimes can be found in how we salvage and embrace our ever-fleeting past.
Wilton Lanning is a local businessman and executive director of the Waco Business League. He is the co-founder of the Dr Pepper Museum & Free Enterprise Institute and founding president.