Waco, Texas is home to two very different museums, one immortalizing the greatest true love story in English poetry and the other the history of the soft drink - specifically Dr Pepper.
Man feels insignificant on the campus of Baylor University in Waco. Although some of the beautiful buildings were inspired by the architecture of New England colleges they are so gigantic — and rearing so high above the ground — they would need Californian Redwoods at their base to soften the images.
This is, of course, Texas, and there is so much land. But in this vast campus a visitor might feel like Gulliver in Brobdingnag.
Armstrong Browning Library of Baylor University
We are heading for an unusual building. It houses, arguably, the greatest true love story in English poetry, perhaps even in the entire English language. Half of this is the life story of Elizabeth Barrett, the romantic Victorian poet (1806-1861), the oldest of 12 children born into the harsh discipline of an autocratic father, a wealthy Englishman who had made his fortune on sugar plantations in Jamaica. She suffered frail health for which, at the age of 15, she was prescribed opium. Her mother died when she was 22.
A brilliant, self-educated prodigy she was a virtual recluse until poet Robert Browning (1812-1889), the other half of the story, entered her life. Like Elizabeth he was self-taught mostly in his father’s 6,000-book library and originally an unimportant Victorian poet. He wrote Elizabeth a letter in 1845 saying he loved her poems. He was a robust, worldly person, six years younger, and she was almost overwhelmed that he could be interested in her.
So began the love story that many may remember from English class in high school. They married. The father disinherited her as he did with all her siblings who married without his permission. “Browning imitated his hero Shelley by spiriting his beloved off to Italy.” Elizabeth died in his arms in 1861.
Avery Sharp, PhD, research librarian at the Armstrong Browning Library of Baylor University, stands with us in the lobby of this beautiful Italian Renaissance-style building. Its massive doors, each weighing three-quarters of a ton, were modeled after the fifteenth century bronze baptistery Ghiberti doors in Florence.
Sharp draws our attention to the bust of Pen Browning. Pen, their only child and Victorian era teenage boy surely had his mother’s hair style! The 1859 painting of Elizabeth in Rome was the work of artist Field Talfourd. The bronze cast of the Clasped Hands of the poets was sculpted in 1853 by their friend Harriet Hosner.
This, the largest Barrett-Browning collection in the world, was the 40-year dream of Andrew Joseph Armstrong, the chairman of the English Department from 1912 to 1952. Armstrong on his first visit to Italy had met Pen, the poets’ son and started buying Browning memorabilia.
Later when Pen’s belongings were sold at a Sotheby auction, Armstrong obtained the details of the sales and with Texas moxie pursued the buyers for the rest of his life to get the material sold or donated to his library.
The museum entrance shows Robert’s young character Pippa (from his poem Pippa Passes). Sculptor Waldine Tauch certainly caught her innocence. The salon has Elizabeth’s writing table and olive wood chair. The Foyer of Meditation reminds us — in gold letters — of her most famous sonnet.
Robert Browning became even more famous and respected after Elizabeth’s death.
“Robert didn’t invent the dramatic monologue, he perfected it,” says Sharp.
His “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,” must have given confidence and joy to many couples. but it was published in 1864 three years after Elizabeth’s death.
The busts face each other in the foyer, and upstairs Rita S. Patteson, director and curator of manuscripts, holds out the manuscript of “How do I love thee?” Elizabeth’s famous Sonnet 43 from Sonnets from the Portuguese. The number was changed later.
Patteson has been with the library since 1971 and has served under four directors. We ask her, “Of the two poets who speaks to you more?”
“Elizabeth,” she answers immediately. “She’s a little bit more easy to read. Robert is more obscure. He makes more references to history.” She goes on to say, “True, Wellesley College in Massachusetts has the entire Browning 573 love letters, but our library has the world’s largest collection of Robert Browning original poems and Elizabeth manuscripts and first editions… And people outside our city — and our country — seem to know more about it than locals!”
Robert’s appearance in two portraits (in 1855, aged 43, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and in 1888, aged 76, by Sir William Richmond) shows he aged but still looked powerful and productive. The Armstrong Browning Library has the world’s largest collections of secular stained glass windows many of them on themes of Browning poems, Robert’s Pied Piper of Hamelin, here, as an example.
Robert’s poems were being published up to the very day of his death. When he returned to live in London after he lost Elizabeth, he became an energetic bon vivant and popular host.
We will be heading soon for a museum that’s possibly more famous to locals: the Dr Pepper Museum. It will be less academic, but we do see one informal item in a Browning office corridor that reminds us Texans can laugh at themselves. It is a cartoon.
Dr Pepper Museum
The 1906 Dr Pepper Museum is an uncomplicated place, the first building dedicated to manufacturing what, arriving a year before Coca-Cola, is the oldest soft drink in America. It’s a Waco native, created in 1885 by pharmacist Charles Alderton.
The museum, the original bottling plant has exhibits from its earliest days including some of its famous slogans from “Just What the Doctor Ordered” to “Vim, Vigor & Vitality, King of Beverages.”
Dr Pepper nearly lost its throne, says Jennie Sheppard, director of visitor services and communications. She tells us the company had several law suits against Coca-Cola from 1951 to the 1990s. The judge finally decided the drink was not a cola and that Coke had violated a Dr Pepper trademark.
Dr Pepper removed the period after the Dr. in 1950 to have a less complicated product that implied medical benefits.
“Dr Pepper has a special, secret recipe,” says Sheppard. “Only two people know it; perhaps each knows half!”
The location of the plant was well planned, right beside twin railway tracks in the heart of downtown Waco, a city halfway between Austin and Dallas/Fort Worth. Despite that the company became insolvent in the early 1980s and is now part of Cadbury Schweppes. However, the museum is an independent structure not owned by Dr Pepper. It even gets some financial support from Coca-Cola as it is more a museum to the entire soft drink industry. Since opening in 1991 it has seen more than 1,300,000 visitors.
The museum has period art and a soda fountain where Hannah Ondersma pours us a draught Dr Pepper and, upstairs, many artifacts including a 1924 Model T pickup truck.
The bottling plant sank its own artesian well in 1906 although it had to go down to more than 27 feet to get water. The city passed an ordinance requiring all wells to be capped and for companies to buy water. We asked why and got the answer “to make money — for the city!” We wander down stairs and look into the well from the fence surrounding it. It looks deep.
We check out glass bottles from Dr Pepper’s past. One in particular looks very old, perhaps from the Old Corner Drug Store where chemist Charles Alderton first concocted his mixture. It is a dusty medicine bottle containing one grain compressed tablets of Suprarenal Gland. The date is not clear, but it surely predates the 1930s when Edward Kendall was exploring the hormones of the adrenal cortex and certainly long before he and Philip Hench were two of the three who won the Nobel Prize for that work in 1950. So maybe there’s more in this museum than the history of the American soda.
You can see all you need to in an hour or so at the Dr Pepper Museum, but you will need to give yourselves more time than that for two other different and magnificent museums in Waco. They are separate stories.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel and cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.