In 1885, on a corner lot in downtown Waco, a drug store pharmacist experimenting with flavors from his soda fountain created something that eventually would please the palates of millions worldwide.
As that product –– Dr Pepper –– celebrates its 125th birthday this year with special promotions and events, the museum in Waco that honors its history and cultural impact is moving ahead with exciting plans for the future.
“There are probably thousands of soft drinks that were created over the past 125 years, and just a handful or so are still in operation,” said Wilton Lanning, the founding president of the Dr Pepper Museum. “Here in Waco, we live where the oldest major soft drink in the nation — Dr Pepper — originated.”
Its early history is a tasty blend of fact and myth. The official story is recounted in the book Dr Pepper: King of Beverages by company historian Harry E. Ellis. In 1880, John W. Castles established a drug store at Fourth Street and Austin Avenue. Two years later, pharmacist Wade B. Morrison became co-owner.
Soon the business’ name was changed to Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store. Pharmacist Charles C. Alderton, a graduate of the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston, was hired. “Doc” Alderton not only sold prescription drugs at the store, but worked behind the soda fountain dispensing soft drinks and other creations.
Possibly inspired by the sweet aroma of the fruit-flavored drinks, Alderton began experimenting with mixing different flavors to form a new beverage. In 1885, he hit upon a combination that proved especially popular with customers.
“Eventually people began saying, ‘Make me a Waco,’ because they didn’t have a name for it,” Lanning said.
The question of what to name the new drink was solved when co-owner Morrison suggested the name “Dr. Pepper” (the period after “Dr” was eventually removed). The traditional story behind the name, as told by Ellis, says that before coming to Waco the young Morrison had worked as a pharmacist in Rural Retreat, Va. It was owned by a local physician named Pepper. Morrison was attracted to Dr. Pepper’s daughter, but the doctor supposedly discouraged the romance because the couple was too young.
When Morrison moved to Waco, the story continues, he admitted to still being infatuated with the doctor’s daughter. He likely made the suggestion of naming his drugstore’s new drink “Dr Pepper” because of his feelings for the girl he left behind, possibly thinking this would cause her father to think more kindly of him.
That’s the most common version of the story, but the drink’s history told on the Dr Pepper Museum website claims that “the origin for the name is unclear. The museum has collected more than a dozen different stories on how the drink became known as Dr Pepper.”
Whatever the name’s origin, there was no doubt in early years about its rapidly growing popularity. The main appeal seemed to be its distinctive taste composed of 23 fruit flavors.
“It’s unique. There’s lemon-lime drinks, cola drinks and root beer drinks, but there’s really only one Pepper,” said Jack McKinney, the museum’s executive director. “There are imitators, but not competitors.”
Morrison soon worked out an agreement with Alderton to mix batches of flavored Dr Pepper syrup in the drug store, which were then sold to other soda fountains in Waco. As demand for the drink grew, the owners realized they would have to move production out of the store’s cramped back room.
Robert S. Lazenby, a local chemist, had opened a small bottling works in Waco in 1884 to produce his own drink, Circle A Ginger Ale. He partnered with Morrison to form a new company in 1891, the Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Works, to produce Dr Pepper.
Sam Houston Prim, who owned a small bottling works in Dublin, Texas, visited Waco that year and tasted Dr Pepper. He soon worked out an agreement to bottle it in the Dublin plant and decided to distribute it in a 44-mile radius around the city. Prim became the soft drink’s first independently owned bottler and the first man to bottle Dr Pepper outside of Waco. The Dublin plant is still bottling Dr Pepper 119 years later with the same modest distribution area.
In 1904, Dr Pepper was introduced to almost 20 million people attending the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, informally known as the St. Louis World’s Fair.
When Waco’s business elite gathered downtown on April 11, 1911, to celebrate at a great open-air “Prosperity Banquet,” hometown Dr Pepper was served on the long tables that stretched down Austin Avenue.
Despite such high-profile triumphs, the soft drink’s early corporate history reflects slow, steady growth. The story became jumbled by a series of often complicated leadership and ownership changes, stock sales, bottling and distribution rights agreements, purchases of other businesses and company name changes. But a few facts regarding the beverage’s legacy in Waco are clear.
When the manufacture of Dr Pepper moved out of the Old Corner Drug Store, it relocated to a series of ever-larger temporary buildings in Waco. In 1906, the new home of Dr Pepper opened at Fifth Street and Mary Avenue. The magnificent three-story brick building was designed by veteran Waco architect Milton Scott, whose previous work had included First Baptist Church and Sanger Avenue Elementary School.
The Dr Pepper building was significantly damaged by the 1953 Waco tornado. It was rebuilt and remained the home of Waco bottling operations until they were moved to another location in town in 1965. The headquarters of the Dr Pepper Co., meanwhile, moved from Waco to Dallas in 1922.
While Dr Pepper was solidifying its corporate organization, it also was changing the way the soft drink was marketed. Early campaigns stressed the healthy aspects of the drink with slogans such as “Good for Brain and Brawn,” “Full of Vim, Vigor (and) Vitality” and “Every Drop Pure (and) Healthful.” A 1908 ad in the Waco Times-Herald promised, “Positively No Caffeine, No Coke or Cocaine.”
Company officials later discovered medical research showing that sugar produces energy, and that many people felt a sense of fatigue during the day at 10:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. That led Dr Pepper to create one of its most successful slogans: “Drink a Bite to Eat at 10, 2 and 4.”
As the years went by, new products were introduced into the Dr Pepper family. The company entered the diet drink arena in 1963 with a somewhat poorly named product called Dietetic Dr Pepper.
“People said ‘diabetes, dietetic –– is this named after a disease or something?,’ ” McKinney said. Sales of the new drink were slow, and the product was renamed Sugar Free Dr Pepper and then Diet Dr Pepper, which is now one of the top sellers in the United States. Later Dr Pepper versions removed caffeine and added cherry and other flavors.
Baylor University has had close ties with Dr Pepper for much of the drink’s long life. For many years, until animal health officials vetoed the practice, Baylor’s mascots eagerly drank Dr Peppers given to them by their trainers. A bear mascot in the early 1980s was named “Judge Pepper” and was nicknamed “Doc,” showing an especially pronounced love for the drink.
In 1997, Baylor signed agreements with Dr Pepper that made it the official beverage on campus and provided for promotional and sponsorship rights for Baylor athletics. Soon after the agreements were signed, Baylor’s traditional “Coke Hour” was changed to “Dr Pepper Hour.”
“Dr Pepper Bottling Co. of Texas is proud of our continued partnership with Baylor, and we look forward to building upon it into the next millennium,” said Jim Turner, who chaired the bottling company at the time. “It’s a natural progression for the two Waco traditions –– Dr Pepper and Baylor University.”
Dr Pepper officially celebrated its 100th birthday in April 1985 with a modern “Prosperity Banquet” under a huge tent at Fifth and Austin. Two thousand people turned out to hear the guest of honor, comedian Bob Hope. He said the soft drink’s inventor, Doc Alderton, should be duly honored.
“I think they should put a statue of him up in the town square –– with fizz coming out of the top,” Hope quipped.
The comedian also alluded to the popular false rumor that says Dr Pepper is made with prune juice.
“Hope said, ‘I don’t know whether (it is) or not, but if you watch those people who are drinking it at 10, 2 and 4 –– where are they at 11, 3 and 5?,’” Lanning remembered.
A result of the 100th anniversary celebration was a renewed effort to restore the abandoned Dr Pepper building at Fifth and Mary and make it into a museum showcasing the soft drink’s history. A Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce task force, chaired by Lanning, drew the full support of Dr Pepper chairman W.W. “Foots” Clements and Waco civic leaders. It raised the $4 million needed to transform the once-forgotten building into the new Dr Pepper Museum, which opened May 11, 1991.
“It was a unique partnership that continues to this day,” Lanning said. “One of the reasons we were successful was because of the great people involved in making this dream a reality, and the staff and volunteers who entertain and educate our visitors.”
The museum, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2011, has welcomed about 1.2 million visitors from as far away as Tasmania and Japan. An average of 10,000 schoolchildren each year take part in educational programs sponsored by the museum’s Free Enterprise Institute.
The museum tells the story not only of Dr Pepper, but of the entire soft drink industry. It has received financial support from Dr Pepper, as well as money and soft drink memorabilia from Coca-Cola and other competitors. The combined financial support has allowed the museum to purchase the adjoining Kellum-Rotan building, which is being renovated.
When completed, the museum’s offices will move next door to the new building, allowing displays in the original building to be expanded and enhanced on all three floors.
“We’d also like to build a clock tower between the two buildings that would maybe have a carillon in it that would play Dr Pepper songs at 10, 2 and 4,” if a benefactor steps forward, McKinney said.
Museum officials extended their influence by advising the Dr Pepper Co. on ways to celebrate the company’s 125th anniversary.
“This summer they issued a bunch of commemorative cans that had older Dr Pepper designs on them.
We really pushed that with them,” McKinney said.
Museum officials held a number of special events in the spring to mark the milestone. They plan to cap off the 125th anniversary with a special exhibit on Dr Pepper calendars that should open in November and run for about six months.
In the meantime, the museum will continue to put Waco on the map.
“People come here from all over the world, drink a Dr Pepper float from the soda fountain and have their picture made on the front steps,” Lanning said. “Those people have a good time and go home knowing what’s unique about Waco.”