Winds of Change
Nearly 60 years ago our fine museum building had a rather unexpected remodeling occur while the building was still being used to bottle
Dr Pepper. Now normally when fixing up a building, it is a good idea to come up with a plan to detail what is going to be changed, how the new version will look, and maybe some discussion on new paint colors. Unfortunately for the workers in our bottling facility and the people of Waco as a whole, little warning was given and it certainly was not planned or expected. On May 11, 1953, the 11th deadliest tornado hit Waco leaving destruction in its wake and killing 114 people.
At 4:40 pm, an F5 tornado made its way into downtown Waco and began turning a once well organized city into little more than shells of buildings and rubble in the street. Many buildings downtown and across the river in East Waco were destroyed. Employees inside the Dr Pepper Bottling plant made it through the storm safely thanks to the quick thinking of Manager C. D. Harris. He ordered the employees to take cover underneath the staircase.
Sadly, there was one casualty at the plant during the storm. Vernon Powell had been outside moving loaded route trucks to the fenced parking lot across the street when the storm hit. He exited his truck to take shelter in a brick building which then collapsed and tragically buried him. The parking lot itself was little more than a pile of rubble and twisted, crushed trucks.
Once the tornado passed, bottling plant workers began to join other Wacoans in the rescue and cleanup operations. The bottling plant had its roof and the outside wall repaired within a short time. At the end of 1953, the Waco Dr Pepper Bottling Plant still led all the Dr Pepper Bottlers in the country in the number of sales, a distinction that they had had numerous times before. Evidence of the damage can still be seen on the side of the building facing Mary Street. A large scar is visible – different colored brick shows where the repair was made to the wall.
The bottling plant went through a major, planned renovation in the late 1980s before opening as the Dr Pepper Museum on May 11th, 1991. It seemed only fitting that two important events in Waco’s history should be entwined. Currently, to celebrate Waco history and to remember those who lost their lives in the tornado, an exhibition opened on the second floor featuring photographs of the destruction and stories of those who were involved. After looking through photographs from our own collection, the Red Men Museum and Library, First Presbyterian Church in Waco and The Texas Collection at Baylor University, photos were chosen that told the best story of the people of Waco and how they overcame such a disaster. We certainly hope to have done them justice.