The town boomed when the railroad came through in 1856, and so in 1872 a former Confederate surgeon named Dr. Charles T. Pepper started a soon-to-be-thriving business dispensing patent medicines in a brick pharmacy in Rural Retreat, VA. He also spent time mixing mountain herbs, roots and seltzer into a fizzy brew.
One local story goes that the doctor’s daughter fell in love with Wade Morrison, Pepper’s assistant. The doctor wasn’t too pleased about that, so he sent her off to school. And he fired Morrison. “This story is probably not true,” says Mary Kegley, author of Wythe County Bicentennial Book, “because within the time frame, Dr. Pepper’s daughter would only have been around 5 at the time Morrison left.
“Dr. Charles T. Pepper also had a son, Louis or Louie, an optometrist who was also known as Dr. Pepper,” Kegley continues. “He worked part time in his father’s drug store and also claimed to have developed the formula for the drink.”
Morrison meantime moved to Texas and set up a pharmacy of his own, the Old Corner Drug Store at Fourth and Austin streets in Waco. He went on to fame and fortune, taking credit as the creator of the best-selling American soft drink we know as Dr Pepper. Charles T. Pepper got neither fame nor fortune out of the bargain.
The Dr Pepper Museum site credits Charles Alderton, a young pharmacist working at Wade Morrison’s drug store, with being the inventor of the now famous drink. The Old Corner Drug Store customers called the drink a “Waco” soda, and it became quite popular at the soda fountain. Morrison began selling batches of the mix, drugstore to drugstore in 1885, and promoted it as a tonic until 1891, when he opened a bottling plant. When he began marketing the syrup to area drugstores, Morrison renamed the drink after his old boss in Rural Retreat. Or not.
“Dr Pepper is named after Dr. Charles T. Pepper, an 1855 graduate of the University of Virginia Medical School,” concurs James A. Ball, the Sr. V.P. Corporate Communications for Dr. Pepper/Seven-Up Companies Inc. of Dallas. “Who practiced medicine at his pharmacy in Rural Retreat, VA in the late 1800s. The entire history of Dr Pepper was published in 1995 by author Jeffrey Rodengen. His book, authorized by me, is entitled The Legend of Dr Pepper/Seven-Up.”
Not everyone associated with the soft drink business agrees with that view.
“What we found was that according to the US Census, Morrison lived in the town of Christiansburg, VA and worked as a pharmacy clerk,” says Milly Walker, the Collections Manager/Curator for the Dublin Dr Pepper Bottling Co. Museum in Dublin, TX. “In that same census on the next page (if I remember correctly) is another Dr. Pepper and he has a daughter, Malinda or Malissa, who is only 16 to Morrison’s 17.
“If you understand that the census takers walked from house to house, you can tell they were near neighbors. This makes much more sense to me than Dr. Charles T. Pepper, 40 miles away in Rural Retreat. There is not one piece of evidence that Morrison ever worked for Dr. Charles T. Pepper in Rural Retreat, VA,” she says.
The remains of Dr. Charles Taylor Pepper rest with those of his wife and several children in Mountain View Cemetery overlooking the town he lived and worked in. He died in 1903 in his 73rd year. And his pharmacy? Despite its brush with greatness, it never became a tourist draw. It finally closed in 1994. “Nowadays, if you’re not big business, you’re not in business,” said W. Baynard Barton 3d, Rural Retreat’s last pharmacist.
sources: “Delve into Dr Pepper’s Origins in Rural Retreat” The Virginian-Pilot, September 1, 1996
“Rural Retreat Journal; Store Closes, and a Way of Life Is Just a Memory” NY Times April 16, 1994