Illustrious Roanokers, Part 3: Dr. Charles T. Pepper

Following the pattern of loosely interpreting “Roanoker” to mean someone who has influenced Roanoke’s development, let’s consider… 

Dr. Charles T. Pepper (1830 – 1903)

A doctor and pharmacist from nearby Rural Retreat, Dr. Pepper is renowned for his greatest medicinal creation: a concoction of herbs, roots, and… you guessed it… carbonated water. This beverage would go on to change the employment opportunities, city skyline, and sugar consumption of Roanoke until this day.

There is probably no western Virginia native who has a more recognizable or frequently printed name. Yet Dr. Pepper lived a quiet existence in the mountains of his home state. Born in a small community in Page County, he studied to become a medical doctor at the University of Virginia, worked as a surgeon at Emory and Henry College during the Civil War, and then settled with his family in the tiny town of Rural Retreat (about an hour and a half southwest of Roanoke). There he opened Dr. Pepper’s Drug Store, as well as serving as the town doctor. Remembered as an upstanding citizen and a giving servant of the community, Dr. Pepper was also an experimenter who loved to concoct fountain drinks out of roots and herbs. According to legend, during this period, he briefly hired an assistant, Wade Morrison, who later moved to Waco, Texas (some claim he took Dr. Pepper’s daughter with him). In Waco, Morrison opened his own drugstore and sold his own fountain drinks, purportedly using a recipe stolen from Dr. Pepper. After its success, Morrison and his business partner went on to patent and begin bottling the beverage.  He named the product – claimed to be the oldest soda brand in the world – after his former boss, possibly to boost its appeal as a health food (it’s just what the “Dr” ordered, apparently).

Although the details of the actual creation of the soda are lost in the shrouds of time, one thing is certain: Dr. Pepper of Rural Retreat made no profit off its success. The year after his death, the drink gained wide popularity from its introduction at the 1904 World’s Fair.

So what’s the Roanoke connection? To start with, the first Dr Pepper bottling plant east of the Mississippi was opened in Roanoke in 1936. Bill Davis, the entrepreneur who founded the plant, aggressively marketed his product – with great success. From 1957 to 1959, and again in 1961, Roanoke drank the most Dr Pepper of any place on earth, and to this day still has one of the country’s highest consumption rates, earning it the title of the “Dr Pepper Capital of the World”. 

The second Roanoke connection sits atop the office building at 129 Campbell Avenue as one of the iconic features of the city skyline. 

While this is not the original sign that adorned the old Dr Pepper plant, it is certainly historic. 

The third Roanoke connection follows from the sign. What do the 10, 2, and 4 on the sign mean? Apparently it hearkens back to an old Dr Pepper advertising slogan of the twenties, which told customers to “drink a bite to eat at 10, 2, and 4 o’clock.” (Apparently at those times a jolt of simple sugars is most appreciated by the body.). Well, here in Roanoke, those numbers have been arranged into the date 10/24 and turned into an opportunity for celebration. October 24 is now the official Dr Pepper Day, and Roanoke has marked this day with downtown events, live music, and (of course) free soda since 2015. (It was a drive-thru event this year.) And finally, we can’t fail to mention Dr Pepper Park at the Bridges… one of Roanoke’s most popular event venues.

Thus, old Dr. Pepper is still commemorated… not only on a doctor’s gravestone in Rural Retreat, but in the lifestyle and culture of Roanokers to this day.

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