Poking through antiques stores while traveling through the Texas Panhandle, Bill Waters stumbled across a tattered old ledger book filled with formulas.
He bought it for $200, suspecting he could resell it for five times that. Turns out, his inkling about the book’s value was more spot on than he knew. The Tulsa, Okla., man eventually discovered the book came from the Waco, Texas, drugstore where Dr Pepper was invented and includes a recipe titled “D Peppers Pepsin Bitters.”
“I began feeling like I had a national treasure,” said Waters, 59.
Dr Pepper’s manufacturer says the recipe is not the secret formula for the modern day soft drink, but the 8 1/2-by-15 1/2 inch book is expected to sell between $50,000 to $75,000 when it goes up for auction at Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries on May 13.
“It probably has specks of the original concoction on its pages,” Waters said.
Waters discovered the book, its yellowed pages stained brown on the edges, underneath a wooden medicine bottle crate in a Shamrock antiques store last summer. A couple months after buying it, he took a closer look as he prepared to sell it on eBay.
He noticed there were several sheets with letterheads hinting at its past, like a page from a prescription pad from a Waco store titled “W.B. Morrison & Co. Old Corner Drug Store.” An Internet search revealed Dr Pepper, first served in 1885, was invented at the Old Corner Drug Store in Waco by a pharmacist named Charles Alderton. Wade Morrison was a store owner.
Faded letters on the book’s fraying brown cover say “Castles Formulas.” John Castles was a partner of Morrison’s for a time and was a druggist at that location as early as 1880, said Mary Beth Webster, collections manager at the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute in Waco.
As he gathered more information, Waters took a slower turn through the book’s more than 360 pages, which are filled with formulas for everything from piano polish to a hair restorer to a cough syrup. He eventually spotted the “D Peppers Pepsin Bitters” formula.
“It took three or four days before I actually realized what I had there,” Waters said.
The recipe written in cursive in the ledger book is hard to make out, but ingredients seem to include mandrake root, sweet flag root and syrup.
It isn’t a recipe for a soft drink, says Greg Artkop, a spokesman for the Plano-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group. He said it’s likely instead a recipe for a bitter digestive that bears the Dr Pepper name.
He said the recipe certainly bears no resemblance to any Dr Pepper recipes the company knows of. The drink’s 23-flavor blend is a closely guarded secret, only known by three Dr Pepper employees, he said.
Michael Riley, chief cataloger and historian for Heritage Auction Galleries, said they think it’s an early recipe for Dr Pepper.
“We just feel like it’s the earliest version of it,” he said.
He hasn’t, however, tested that theory by trying to mix up a batch. Neither has Waters; he’s thought about it but would need to find someone to decipher all the handwriting.
Jack McKinney, executive director of the Waco museum, surmised that Alderton might have been giving customers something for their stomachs and added some Dr Pepper syrup to make it taste better.
“I don’t guess there’s any definitive answer. It’s got to be the only one of its kind,” Riley said.
McKinney said the ledger book was bound to be popular with Dr Pepper collectors because it’s from the time the drink was invented.
Riley said the book was probably started around 1880 and used through the 1890s. It’s not known who wrote the Dr Pepper recipe in the book, but they don’t think it was the handwriting of Alderton or Morrison. Some of the formulas have Alderton’s name after them.
At first, Alderton’s drink inspired by the smells in the drugstore was called “a Waco.” “People would come in and say, ‘Shoot me a Waco,'” Riley said.
Soon renamed Dr Pepper, the drink caught on and other stores in town began selling it. Eventually, Alderton got out of the Dr Pepper business and Morrison and a man named Robert Lazenby started a bottling company in 1891.
Flipping through the pages of the ledger book takes one back to a time when drugstores were neighborhood hubs, selling everything from health remedies to beauty products mixed up by the stores’ chemists. And among the formulas being mixed up in drugstores were treats for the soda fountain. A two-page spread in Waters’ book has recipes for “Soda Water Syrups,” including pineapple, lemon and strawberry.
“There were very few national brands,” Riley said. “Their lifeblood was all their formulas.”