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Big Guns and Dr Pepper: A Road Trip to Waco, Texas by Aaron Reed

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Health Camp in Waco, Texas
Aaron Reed
The Health Camp on Waco's historic traffic circle has been family owned and operated since 1949.

Dr Pepper soda fountain
Aaron Reed
A functioning soda fountain in the Dr Pepper Museum is a popular pit stop for road-weary travelers.

Early Dr Pepper bottles
Aaron Reed
These early Dr Pepper bottles showcase one of the more successful stopper mechamisms. The invention in 1892 of the "crown cap" still in use today revolutionized the bottling and distribution of carbonated beverages.

The Health Camp

Opened in 1949, The Health Camp is a burger joint fronting the roundabout on the old San Antonio-to-Dallas Highway, just one parking lot away from a former Elvis Presley hangout, the Elite Café. The Health Camp still has a walk-up window. We had been warned that the "Healthburgers" were just so-so, but the shakes were said to be stupendous.

My cheeseburger meets expectations, but the fries I order are tasty. Tamara's onion rings are wonderful. She orders a butterscotch milkshake; I order the chocolate. Health Camp milkshakes come with spoons, and it's a good thing -- they're too thick to easily drink through a straw.

Fortified, we retrace our steps north on the interstate, hang a U-turn at the river and drive west into Waco's largely deserted downtown district.

The King of Beverages

When I was a kid, "coke" was slang for any soft drink. The widespread acceptance of the brand name for the generic product was an empty victory for Coca-Cola, though, as their cola-flavored soda was never what I was after.

"Give me a coke," I'd tell the pimpled kid behind the movie theater snack bar.

"What kind?"

"Dr Pepper."

I am a Dr Pepper fanatic. I don't believe Mr. Pibb is the same beverage, or even a remotely acceptable stand-in. I once spent an entire afternoon searching Bavarian convenience stores and supermarkets for a six-pack of the soda, and when Jelly Belly introduced a Dr Pepper-flavored jelly bean, I wrote an enthusiastic letter of endorsement to the Herman Goelitz candy company.

The British company Cadbury Schweppes now owns the Dr Pepper brand, but Waco is its birthplace. A museum pays it homage in the 1906 Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Company building at 300 S. 5th Street.

The building was donated by the Dr Pepper Company as part of a downtown revitalization project in the late 1980s, and now is owned by the W. W. Clements Free Enterprise Institute. The institute's stated goal is to use the Dr Pepper success story to educate visitors about the economic system that underlies American life. The target audience is schoolchildren.

Tamara and I linger at the ticket counter, just beyond the gift shop and soda fountain inside the building. After waiting several minutes, we shrug at each other and stroll into the first display. Already the museum's mission is successful: By being enterprising, we have gained admittance for free.

The exhibit is a re-creation of Wade Morrison's Old Corner Drug Store, where a young pharmacist named Charles Alderton first served Dr Pepper in 1885. Alderton said he was trying to recreate, in the flavor of Dr Pepper, that heady aroma of spice and berry flavors that greeted customers when they came through the soda fountain door. His marvelous concoction of 23 secret flavors quickly gained a following, and soon shouts of "Shoot me a 'Waco'" -- as the recipe was then called -- rang through soda fountains throughout the city.

With displays on three floors, the Dr Pepper Museum offers enough antique bottling equipment, glass bottles and advertising materials to satisfy even my fanatical interest. Plus, the gift shop is stacked high with cases of Dr Pepper. Not just any Dr Pepper, either -- Dublin Dr Pepper. In Texas, Dublin Dr Pepper has an almost religious mystique. The little bottling plant, located 90 miles north and a bit west of Waco, was the first to bottle the soda fountain recipe and the only bottler never to switch to corn sweeteners. It's made today with Imperial pure cane sugar -- another native Texas brand -- just as it was in 1891.

At the soda fountain, Tamara and I order ginger ale; it's the only place in the world that "Circle A" ginger ale is still served. The brand was popular more than a century ago, eventually becoming the official ginger ale of the U.S. Armed Forces.

As we sit at one of the tables scattered across the black-and-white tiled floor, a family of six walks in. We listen to their conversation. They are refugees from the teeming interstate who have followed the signs to the soda fountain, seeking refreshment.

Waco is itself refreshing -- a step back to a simpler time: an era of stark certainty, enterprising business and unapologetic wholesomeness.

Aaron Reed


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