Which of them REALLY invented ‘Dr Pepper’?

Posted by | July 30, 2015

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.

 "Rural Retreat, VA drug store owned by Dr. Charles Pepper. The drug store burnt to the ground in 1999. Courtesy Dan Moore/Wytheville, VA, 2009.

“Rural Retreat, VA drug store owned by Dr. Charles Pepper. The drug store burnt to the ground in 1999. Courtesy Dan Moore/Wytheville, VA, 2009.


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.

Original Dr Pepper bottles at the Dublin Bottling Works and W.P. Kloster Museum in Dublin, Texas, 2014. Courtesy The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Original Dr Pepper bottles at the Dublin Bottling Works and W.P. Kloster Museum in Dublin, Texas, 2014. Courtesy The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.


“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


7 Responses

  • wooman21 says:

    That is the true story of dr. pepper. His son took it to Waco when he died. Waco did actually make dr pepper, but the formula was made in Rural Retreat.

  • As I sit here, 10 miles up Rte. 11 from Rural Retreat I firmly resolve not to tell my wife about this post. She’s a Wythe County native while I’m a transplant from Virginia Beach. When that woman gets her teeth into something she just won’t let go. A story about this controversy aired on PBS a couple years back and she spent the next week or two convincing me they were all wrong!

  • Debbie says:

    I was Born in Marion and grew up hearing the story from the family. The way it went was, the Pharmacy assistant was supposed to mary the Pharmacist’s daughter, but stole the formula, which was made and served at the Rural Retreat “drug strore soda counter” and ran off with the recipe, getting credit for it’s formula. Mountain Dew was formulated in Marion, just a stone’s throw away.

  • Frank Musser says:

    I am from Rural Retreat, Va and graduated from RRHS on June 14, 1951. I have been in Dr. Pepper’s drug store thousands of times after it became Cassell & Frye grocery store. Dr. Pepper’s house still stands on Richmond Ave. just below Sherwood Ave, where I grew up. In an upper field behind his house are two cherry trees growing side by side and my mother told me that his two oldest sons died from eating too many unripened cherries and died and he buried them there. Dr. Pepper made his drink out of tree roots, tree bark and sassafras roots. His drink was quite popular and he called it “My Concoction.” Dr. Pepper had an 11-year old daughter, who was said to be very beautiful, and after he hired Wade Morrison to be come a pharmacist, Wade fell in love with his daughter and Dr. Pepper tried to discourage the affair so later Mr. Morrison stole the recipe for the concoction and took his daughter and got on the Norfolk and Western train just across from the drug store and they ended up in Waco, Tx where he made a fortune off Dr. Pepper’s concoction. His daughter made him name it after he father, the original inventor. Dr. Pepper never made any money off his drink. He is buried in the Mt. View Cemetery in Rural Retreat, VA, which is surrounded by Big Walker and Little Brushy mountains.

  • Joy Gammon. says:

    I have a mug that says Rural Retreat, home of Dr. Pepper. Unfortunately, that handle broke off. My father’s family lived in Rural Retreat for multiple generations, and I have so many wonderful childhood memories of long visits there, but when the train still stopped there, the old drugstore was still open, etc.

    The mug was bought in Rural Retreat by my brother on a visit there maybe 10 years ago.

    I have been unable to find anything like this on the web. Has anyone seen something similar? I have no idea where to look for “touristy” things about Rural Retreat.

    Thank you for any help you can provide.

  • 10) PEPPER BROTHERS – About 1858 a large family of Peppers re-located to Bristol from Mt. Airy ( Rural Retreat), VA. James R., William H., Charles T., Jessee H., and John Givens Pepper.

    C.T. & J.G. purchase the business of Thomas & Campbell and operate as the Pepper Bros. Drug Store, located “at the sign of the Red Mortar”. Pepper Bros. first ad appears in October of 1866 and continue well into 1872.

    In 1873, J.G. Pepper is located on Main St. and advertising as a “sole proprietor.” In 1873 C.T. and W.H Pepper enter into a partnership with Dr. Jere Bunting. In 1875, J.G. was having a new home constructed and while inspecting the second floor, he fell and became fatally injured. In 1879, the Pepper & Bunting partnership was dissolved.

    C.T. Pepper was born in 1830, and he graduated from the University of Va. in 1855. In Nov. 1865, he is a member of the Bristol Masonic Fraternity. From 1870 to 1876, he is a Bristol-Goodson City Councilman. In 1875, he is on the Board of the Bristol Academy of Medicine and is the Deacon of Central Presbyterian Church. In 1879, he is Treasurer of the Bristol Academy of Medicine.

    A May 1879 advertisement notes that Dr. C.T. and Mrs. Pepper will erect another brick store. However, something occurred to change this plan, for in Aug. of 1879, C.T. and his family move back to Rural Retreat. There he opens a Pharmacy/Soda Fountain business. (It is from here that the “legend” about the Dr. Pepper soft drink begins).

    An 1892 ad notes Drs. Rhea & Pepper, Dentists.

    In 1870, Pepper Bros. prepared and sold “Pepper’s Celebrated & Aperient Tonic Bitters.” They also sold McClung & Betterton’s Eureka Bitters, manufactured in Knoxville,TN., Rosenheim’s Bitters , Plantation Bitters, and Stoughton’s Bitters. An April 1871 ad for Pepper’s Aperient & Tonic Bitters claimed it was for dyspepsia, diseases of the liver, stomach, headache, constipational, and all diseases arising from a torpid condition of the digestive organs.

  • Eugene Pennington says:

    I remember that store very well. It was on the corner just across the railroad tracks leaving the big town of Rural Retreat V.A. Loved that town and it’s people dearly. Would not trade the place or people and the memories for nothing

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