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According to the 1957 Gallup Poll, 53 percent of Americans considered themselves “very happy,” making ‘57 the happiest year ever for the U.S. And folks in the Roanoke Valley had two good reasons to be happy: They were celebrating the city’s 75th birthday, and they were drinking Dr Pepper – lots of Dr Pepper. So much that Roanoke Valley was crowned the “Dr Pepper Capital of the World.”
The efforts of entrepreneur John W. “Bill” Davis, certainly contributed. He left the oil business in Texas in 1936, moved his family to Roanoke and opened a Dr Pepper bottling plant, determined to change Roanokers’ preference for colas. He used radio, TV, personal contacts and about 5,000 different promotions.
One successful campaign had Davis’ salesmen telling six people a day the story of Dr Pepper’s origins in southwest Virginia and give them each a bottle. Those origins reached back to Charles Alderton, who created a new soft drink while working at a Waco, Texas drugstore owned by Christiansburg native Wade Morrison. Legend has it that Morrison named the new drink after Dr. Charles T. Pepper of Rural Retreat – the father of a girl who broke Morrison’s heart. It didn’t help him win the girl, but the story’s romance appealed to Roanokers.
Roanoke native Irving Sharp was second only to Davis as the area’s best-known Dr Pepper salesman. Sharp filled the WDBJ radio airwaves with plugs. He called listeners while Dr Pepper employees simultaneously went to their homes to see how many bottles of Dr Pepper were in their refrigerators. Participants were given a silver dollar for every cold bottle.
Davis’ innovative marketing, including hot Dr Pepper (served with a slice of lemon), drove Roanoke’s Dr Pepper consumption to record heights. From ‘57 to ‘59, and again in ‘61, valley residents were tops in the world.
Also in 1957:
• Ronald Reagan, well-known film star and television personality, came to Salem on March 15th, in a public relations junket to tour the General Electric plant and promote the “GE Theatre” TV program, which Reagan hosted.
• A spectacular early-morning fire destroyed the American Legion Auditorium on November 3rd. The building was located across from the Norfolk & Western passenger station at Williamson Road and Wells Avenue NE. It was originally constructed in 1916 as the City Auditorium. American Legion Post 3 acquired the building in 1947. Loss of the facility revived public interest in building a new municipal civic center.
• The first radar-actuated stoplights in western Virginia were installed at the intersection of Texas and Idaho streets in Salem. Because radio transmitters were used to operate the lights, Salem had to obtain a Federal Communications Commission license before installing the lights.
• The Mick-or-Mack grocery chain, opened the largest of its 47-store chain, on June 6th, at 4215 Melrose Avenue. Company officials said the new store had the largest produce department in the Roanoke area, and offered a “Kiddie Korner,” with crayons, coloring books and picture books, and a lounge for adults.
• Mick-or-Mack offered these Diamond Jubilee specials at 75 cents: a ten pound bag of sugar, a half-gallon of Sealtest ice cream, a pound bag of H&C coffee, and three packages of Pillsbury cake mix.
• VMI downed rival VPI 14-6 at Victory Stadium on November 6th, to wrap up its first undefeated season in 37 years, and its first Southern Conference title.
How to turn 75
June 9, 1957 began Roanoke’s Diamond Jubilee celebration honoring its 75th birthday. For nine days the city was the scene of celebration, entertainment and pageantry, including:
The “Rising Star” pageant – a historical spectacle with a cast of thousands.
The Cetlin and Wilson carnival – the world’s second largest traveling carnival.
Index 1957 – a mammoth $2 million industrial exhibit.
A time capsule buried at the public library (to be opened in 2032).
Historical window displays by downtown merchants.
I The Diamond Dandies’ beard-growing and Jubilee Belles’ costume contests.
I Nightly fireworks!