WACO: Where it All Began

Article written by Chris Dyer, president/CEO of the Dr Pepper Museum & Free Enterprise Institute, published in the 2019 first quarter edition of Greater Waco Business magazine.


Downtown Waco looks vastly different now than it did when I left Baylor in 1998 with my undergraduate degree. From my vantage point at that time, there was not much going on. This clearly wasn’t the case – I’ve come to realize that Waco has always had a rich history of entrepreneurship and innovation. Two decades later, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to lead one of the original attractions in downtown Waco – the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute – and thoroughly enjoy the thriving and creative entrepreneurial environment that the community offers. I greatly appreciate the sweat equity that forward-thinking Wacoans invested in downtown so many years ago and look forward to building on that strong foundation.

The Dr Pepper Museum & Free Enterprise Institute opened to the public in May 1991 and has welcomed close to two million visitors since then. The Museum is home of the nation’s oldest major soft drink, Dr Pepper, a product that exemplifies innovation and entrepreneurship. From the beginning, the Waco Chamber of Commerce and the City of Waco hoped that the Museum would be a catalyst for renewed energy and growth in the area, with the potential for restaurants and shops in the old warehouses nearby to create a destination like the West End Historic District in Dallas. In the early 1990s, the Museum hosted 35,000 visitors a year, which was a much-needed jolt for downtown Waco at that time. Today, with the addition of the Magnolia Market at the Silos and the many restaurants, tourist attractions and businesses, downtown Waco is expected to see well over two million visitors from all over the world in 2019.

W. W. “Foots” Clements

The free enterprise economic system is a driving force behind everything that the Museum does. The Museum bases much of our work and educational programming around the creation and success of Dr Pepper, as well as the personal free enterprise story of the founder of the Free Enterprise Institute, W.W.  “Foots” Clements. Growing up, Foots had a variety of jobs, including digging ditches. He drove a delivery truck for Dr Pepper while in college and through hard work, creativity and love for the product, eventually became the board chairman of Dr Pepper. This small-town Alabama native and youngest of nine children helped grow Dr Pepper from a regional Texas-based company into a global brand. His is the ultimate free enterprise success story.

At first glance, having “Free Enterprise Institute” in the name of the Museum may seem odd to some, but we embrace the title. What is “Free Enterprise?” Simply stated, it is the American economic system in which private businesses operate in competition and largely free of control. If not for the free enterprise system and the competition, product options, customers, innovators and opportunities that it creates, there would be no Dr Pepper – or Dr Pepper Museum – or the current downtown Waco revival that we are enjoying.

Paraphrasing a recent speech by Dr Pepper Museum Board Chair Dr. Blaine McCormick, “Once we lose the right to choose which products go into our shopping cart or the freedom to change jobs when we want, it’s not long until we begin to lose our freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The work the Museum does to preserve our free enterprise economic system simultaneously preserves and strengthens our Constitutional rights. Dr Pepper would not exist without the free enterprise system. While we celebrate Dr Pepper and free enterprise, let’s remember why the two go together. We could not have one without the other.” McCormick included a quote from the late Foots Clements stating, “Let’s make sure all Americans understand the very solid fact that if free enterprise disappears, freedom will disappear with it.” The abundance of entrepreneurs in downtown Waco provides evidence that free enterprise is alive and well.

The Museum’s youth program offerings include The Business of Bubbles; Create a Soft Drink; Advertising and Marketing: Kids Style; Liquid Lab; and outreach focused on youth financial literacy. Through these programs, we encourage Waco and the youth of McLennan County to be creative thinkers, problem-solvers and innovators that understand how the economy and personal finance works. It is truly amazing what kids can do when mentored and given an outlet for creativity.

Waco was an early haven for proponents of the free enterprise system. Throughout history, people passing through the area have realized the significance of the geographic positioning of Waco, which sits on old cattle trails and strategic commerce routes, railroad lines and present-day Interstate 35. The sheer volume of people that have passed through Waco throughout history is staggering, which has resulted in a confluence of individuals with a wide variety of experiences, ideas and backgrounds. This is one of the many keys to a thriving and creative economy. Today, approximately 140,000 cars pass through Waco daily on Interstate 35 – what a location, and what an opportunity!

Charles Alderton

Dr Pepper’s story is representative of what was going on in Waco in the 1880s as well as what is happening downtown today. Dr Pepper originated at Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store in downtown Waco. Charles Alderton, an innovative pharmacist working at Morrison’s store, was the inventor of Dr Pepper. Alderton spent most of his time mixing medicine for Waco residents, but in his spare time he enjoyed making carbonated drinks at the store soda fountain. After numerous experiments, Alderton created a mixture of syrups that he liked. To test his new drink, he first offered it to store owner Morrison, who also found it to his liking. After vigorous sample testing by the two and much trial and error, Alderton began offering his new concoction to fountain customers. Other patrons at Morrison’s soda fountain soon learned of Alderton’s new drink and began ordering it by asking him to shoot them a “Waco.” The product became so popular that they could no longer produce enough at their fountain to supply the growing demand.

Robert S. Lazenby

Robert S. Lazenby, a young beverage chemist and entrepreneur, had also tasted the new drink and was impressed. Alderton suggested that Morrison and Lazenby develop the product further. In 1891, Morrison and Lazenby formed a new firm, the Artesian Manufacturing & Bottling Company which later became Dr Pepper Company. The rest is history.

Free markets and entrepreneurship are driven by creating and serving customers and earned success. Both W.W. “Foots” Clements and Charles Alderton experienced great success because of their work ethic and innovation, a point that the Museum focuses on with our youth educational programming. This is the kind of success that the American free enterprise system fosters. Throughout the process, it was clear that Alderton and Foots truly enjoyed and were passionate about their craft, always placed the customer in the forefront, worked hard, embraced competition and were not solely focused on dollar signs – these are all extremely important concepts that Waco’s current and emerging entrepreneurs should take to heart.