Isrealli

Is there a Dr in the house?

WACO – Long, long ago, Papa would climb into his faded blue ’52 pickup and putter down the Dallas Highway to stay with us for a few days before heading back to the Hill County farm where he lived all alone. Occasionally during his visits, he seemed to develop a rasping, little cough that kept him – and us – awake at night. Despite being a lifelong teetotaler – because, according to family lore, his father had not been – the only cure for the cough was a “medication” he called a hot toddy. Hot water, sugar, a squeeze of lemon and Jack Daniels, it smelled really good when Mom heated it up on the stove.

So, my grandfather wasn’t a drinker – of alcohol, that is – but he did have a liquid addiction: Dr Pepper. And he’s not the only one I’ve met over the years who can’t get along without their daily DP pick-me-up (maybe even at 10, 2 and 4, as the old ad slogan encouraged). I think of Joe Graham, the late Texas A&M-Kingsville anthropologist I got to know on field trips to a Mexican village 50 miles south of Presidio/Ojinaga. Joe was a Mormon who abstained from alcohol and tobacco, but every one of his trips along rutted gravel roads deep into rugged, rural Chihuahua was fueled by Dr Pepper.

I’m not saying Dr Pepper’s secret ingredients include an addictive substance; I am saying that Waco’s most prominent export, the oldest major soft drink in America, has long enjoyed a loyal following. (Big Red is another Waco product that inspires loyalty, but nothing like Dr Pepper). Imagine the consternation of hardcore Pepper Uppers around the country when their drink suddenly became hard to get recently.

From what I’ve read, an aluminum-can shortage, not an actual soft-drink shortage, was at the core of the problem. Preparing for the pandemic in the spring, we cleared out grocery-store shelves of canned drinks, and the beverage industry, including Dr Pepper, struggled to keep up.

“We know it’s harder to find Dr Pepper these days. We’re working on it – hang tight,” Dr Pepper’s parent company, Plano-based Keurig Dr Pepper, tweeted. “We’re doing everything we can to get it back into your hands. That means working with our distribution partners to keep shelves stocked nationwide, while ensuring the safety of our employees.”

In the old days, back in 1885 when the drink that became Dr Pepper was invented – one year before Coca Cola – it was a bit easier. All you had to do was stroll into Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store at Fourth St. and Austin Ave. in downtown Waco, seat yourself on a stool at the soda fountain and allow yourself to be a guinea pig for the experimental flavor concoctions of a smart, young pharmacist named Charles Courtice Alderton.

Alderton, who had grown up in England and had studied medicine at the University of Texas, spent most of his time concocting medicinal remedies for coughs, colds, queasiness and other ailments that afflicted Wacoans, but in his spare time he liked to experiment with flavors. He believed that the spices, herbs, extracts and fruit syrups he had in stock made the whole pharmacy smell good. He also sensed that fountain customers were tiring of the traditional sarsaparilla, lemon-based and vanilla-flavored drinks most soda fountains offered.

Alderton kept a journal, sort of a recipe book of ingredients for various soft drinks, including a popular item that customers simply called a Waco. “Shoot me a Waco!” they would say, and Alderton would serve up the carbonated concoction that became Dr Pepper. (A 1950s ad campaign nixed the period.)

In the beginning, the precise mixture of Dr Pepper’s 23 blended flavors was a mystery known only to Alderton and to pharmacy owner Wade B. Morrison. One hundred thirty-five years later, the ingredients are still a closely kept secret, known only to those who have access to a locked vault at company headquarters in Plano or to the vaults of two Dallas banks. (Despite hoary rumors to the contrary, the ingredients do not include prune juice, the company insists. A rival salesman back in the ‘30s allegedly concocted the prune-juice calumny.)

The origin of the name also is a mystery. The Dr Pepper Museum & Enterprise Institute in Waco has collected more than a dozen different origin stories.

Perhaps the most common is that Morrison’s first employer, back in Rural Retreat, Va., was a Dr. Pepper and that the young Morrison asked Pepper for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The father said no, so the heartbroken 19-year-old left Virginia for Austin and then Waco. Texas Monthly a few years ago reported that the girl Morrison longed to marry was only 8 when he headed for Texas, so that part of the story doesn’t add up, although a Dr. Pepper was indeed Morrison’s first employer. Probably he attached his Virginia mentor’s name to the drink, knowing also that a pharmacy-produced drink with “Dr.” in the name would suggest health benefits to all who consumed.

It wasn’t long before Dr Pepper was so popular that other soda fountain operators in and around Waco began buying the syrup from the Old Corner Drug Store. Morrison and Alderton couldn’t keep up with demand.

Joy Summar-Smith, the museum’s resident expert on Dr Pepper history, told me that Alderton decided early on he wanted to remain a pharmacist instead of going into the soft drink business. He suggested that Morrison team up with Robert Sherman Lazenby, a young beverage chemist they both knew. Lazenby had started his own Waco-based soft-drink enterprise, the Circle “A” Ginger Ale Co., when he was 18. He agreed to produce Dr Pepper syrup in his bottling plant. (Alderton remained a distinguished Waco pharmacist until his death in 1941. Summar-Smith said she’s never heard anything about whether he regretted his Dr Pepper decision.)

In 1891, Morrison and Lazenby founded the Artesian Mfg. & Bottling Company, which later became the Dr Pepper Company. Lazenby and his son-in-law, J.B. O’Hara, moved the company to Dallas in 1923. It’s now a component of Keurig Dr Pepper, a huge beverage and food products company based in Burlington, Mass.

In 1904, Lazenby and O’Hara took Dr Pepper to the World’s Fair Exposition in St. Louis, introducing the drink to close to 20 million people. Fairgoers also were the first to eat hamburgers and frankfurters on buns. Perhaps many washed down the novelty items with a Dr Pepper.

Much of what I know about Dr Pepper I’ve learned from occasional visits to the museum, housed in the company’s original headquarters in downtown Waco. Unlike Chip and Joanna Gaines’ wildly popular and ever-expanding Magnolia empire just a few blocks away, the museum feels a bit dated, although it’s still worth a visit. My granddad has been gone for a long time, but if he were still with us, we’d have to take the tour. He’d be happy to know that a free Dr Pepper comes with the $10 ticket. ($8 for a senior like himself)

djholley10@gmail.com

Twitter: holleynews

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