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Thursday, Jan. 20, 2005 06:16 pm

When the drugstore served the best drinks in town

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The 20th Century Drugstore, at Fifth and Monroe streets, circa 1902
PHOTO BY GUY R. MATHIS (FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY)

At the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Edwards Street is a two-story building with a "For Lease" sign in the front window of the vacant first story. Until recently, the location served as a religious meeting house and, for many years before that, as an antique shop where a languorous cat spent her days blissfully, and publicly, sunbathing. Two hand-painted signs above and on either side of the front door, however, give evidence of a significant past use forthis solid, aging, and, in almost every other way, nondescript brick structure that was the site of so many of my fond boyhood memories. One reads "SODA," the other "Coca-Cola." Though they now offer nothing but the empty promise of liquid refreshment, by gazing on them I can transport myself back to 1960-something, when this was Zorn's Drug Store and the soda fountain therein was the cool, air-conditioned oasis to which I, and the neighborhood gang, repaired after a long summer's morning after playing baseball in the Dubois schoolyard.

There are almost no words to describe how good that cool air felt, or how sweet and cold that cherry phosphate was, or how much fun it was to sit on those stools (they swiveled) and cut up with the boys while the elderly, white-jacketed pharmacist prepared our drinks. Though I'm now sure he probably grimaced when the door opened and we trooped in (how little he must have wanted to see a gaggle of dirty and sweaty 12-year-olds taking up all of the counter space), he was tolerant and showed more patience than we probably deserved.

I often say, but rarely mean, that I "got in on the tail end of" this or that historical era, but I may be accurate when I say as much about hanging around the drugstore soda fountain. They simply don't exist any more. One man who knows something about the history of the drugstore soda fountain, and who is determined to keep it alive, is Bill Soderlund, a fourth-generation pharmacist who operates Soderlund Village Drugs in Saint Peter, Minn. (www.drugstoremuseum.com).

"I'm a fourth-generation pharmacist with a family history in pharmacy dating back to 1899," Soderlund says. "I grew up in a drugstore, and because I have so many fond memories of my youth I became interested in the preservation of the American drugstore and soda-fountain history. As a child, I would walk to the corner drugstore and take my dad his lunch. After he ate, he'd show me the really old pharmacy bottles and equipment in the basement, and at that point, the old-fashioned pharmacy became part of me."

The modern pharmacy is no longer a meeting spot or a fun place to be, says Soderlund, but, rather, a factory: "It has become an assembly line, and one pharmacy looks just like another. I made a conscious decision not to follow that direction. About 10 years ago, I began collecting drugstore and soda-fountain items and displaying them. We also started giving away free old-fashioned root beer. I found an antique 'Liquid Carbonic' soda fountain for sale in Buffalo Center, Iowa, and brought the marble masterpiece back to Saint Peter and paired it with a back bar of quarter-sawn oak, with lighted stained glass and a real icebox underneath. The Chamber of Commerce added my place to their list of places to see."

The photo that accompanies today's column is of the interior of Clarkson and Mitchell's 20th Century Drugstore at the southwest corner of Fifth and Monroe streets, circa 1902. It was taken by photographer Guy R. Mathis, who didn't have to travel very far to get the shot. His Springfield Camera Company (the city's first dealer in Kodaks) was kitty-corner across the street. The northwest corner was widely known as Dodds Corner, because Dodds' Drug Store (and soda fountain) was there for so long, and was such a popular meeting place, that it became synonymous with the intersection itself. Another drugstore, Hulett's, occupied the southeast corner.

A close inspection of the photo reveals some interesting items. In addition to some Coca-Cola memorabilia for which serious collectors would give their eyeteeth, there are menus for hot sodas (cocoa, coffee, Vigoral, beef, and clam) and cold sodas (Buffalo Punch, Champagne Phosphate, Roman Nectar). The ceramic jug at right contains "Kalamazoo Celerytone Kola" ("Made Where the Celery Grows"), which, says Soderlund, contained cocaine, caffeine, and celery juice and was marketed as a tonic to make you feel better and relieve headache. "Many so-called soft drinks contained cocaine," he says. "In 1914, narcotics became controlled, and in 1919, alcohol became a controlled substance. But all you needed was a doctor to write a prescription on a government-issued blank form. Any licensed doctor could, and often did, write an alcohol prescription for their patients. It was commonly said that the drugstore sells the best drink in town."

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