Dr Pepper is the oldest soft drink in America, gaining the distinction by being served in December of 1885 at Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas. It edges Coca-Cola, which was first served in Atlanta in May, 1886.
The name Dr Pepper has officially lacked punctuation since 1950, dropping the period in Dr which was previously used. The unusual drink was invented by pharmacist Charles Alderton while working at Morrison’s Drug Store. In his free time, he mixed and matched various fountain syrups until his 23-flavor recipe was achieved we know today as Dr Pepper.
Locally, Dr Pepper has been available since 1938 when Middle Tennessee Dr Pepper Bottling Company was headed by Ed Travis. It was purchased by Hazel and Truman Milner in 1965, with son Doug heading it up today.
Since its inception in 1885, many advertising campaigns have come and gone, resulting in numerous slogans, bottle creations, signs and items bearing the soft drink’s name.
Longtime employee and current sales manager Sam Woodlee has been with the company since 1958 when he started at the young age of 18.
“I did have to leave for two years when Uncle Sam called,” said Woodlee. “I served in the Army, and then came back here to work. It’s a great place to work and is very special to me.”
Because of the many years with the company he has experienced many changes, and has had the opportunity to collect lots of Dr Pepper memorabilia.
“There’s so much Dr Pepper stuff out there, it’s hard to collect it all,” said Woodlee. “I have gathered up some unique stuff over the years, some of it when we traveled to conventions.”
One of the oldest pieces in his collection is a cardboard sign designed to look like a framed picture, but made entirely of folded cardboard. He remembers getting the sign in 1962 from Alice Milstead’s grocery store in Viola.
“It’s probably from the ‘40s or ‘50s, and she had it hanging from a light fixture in the middle of the store,” said Woodlee. “It was a thank-you advertising piece.”
According to a collecting source, cardboard signs were cheap to produce and easy to put up. When the signs wore out, or went out of date as advertising campaigns were updated, they could simply be tossed out. That’s one of the reasons they are so collectible today.
He has been assisted by his wife, Glenda, in their collecting. She has traveled with him to the many conventions, and made sure they got souvenirs from each place. They have traveled all over the United States, even making trips to Hawaii, Switzerland and Austria for the company.
“I know if it were not for Dr Pepper we wouldn’t have been able to travel this extensively,” said Woodlee. “The Milners have been great people to work for.”
Much of their collection is in storage, but they proudly display signs and mirrors from different eras, have two wall clocks, one commemorating the 100th anniversary of Dr Pepper, and a unique 8-day wind-up clock. They are especially proud of their bottle collection, with some from the ‘40s with McMinnville cut into the glass.
“This was before they put color labels on the bottles, so the design and name of the bottler was actually embedded in the bottle,” said Woodlee.
A bookshelf in Woodlee’s office holds more collectables, with his favorite being a fleet of die-cast metal Dr Pepper delivery trucks. They are light green in color, and are similar to some of the ones he started out making deliveries in.
The Woodlees love to travel, having made three trips out west, with them stopping at as many antique shops as they can.
They are avid glass collectors, with him focusing on Vaseline glassware and jadeite, with her favorite being collectables being hobnail opalescent and Fenton glassware.
Sam and Brenda are parents to three children, Debbie Morgan, Penny Lee and Buddy Woodlee. Morgan works every day with her father, starting work part time in 1980, and full time in 1982. The light of their lives are their four granddaughters, and have hopes they will inherit their collection-loving genes.