December 23, 1994
The other day I wrote a bit about the soda fountain at Foster’s Corner Drug Store. That column brought back some happy memories of the innocent years I spent growing up in our family business, the City Drug Store, on the north side of the square. Not many of you will remember the place. It was one of the Great Depression's final casualties in Perry, succumbing just before prosperity finally seemed to be returning. The actual date of its demise is easy to remember because it occurred on Christmas Eve of 1940. Not a good time to have to close the family business, but it was an inevitable conclusion to what once had been a pretty popular place.
Our store was in the two-story building now occupied by the Cherokee Strip Antique Mall. Foster's, operated by Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Foster Sr., was one of our friendly competitors. My dad, who died in 1931, had been a good friend and mentor of Mr. Foster and my mother had been a high school chum of Ralph's wife, Edna, so they really had a warm, close relationship.
There were two other drug stores on the square then but Foster's is the only survivor from among that early-day group. It is now operated by Mr. and Mrs. Mike Shannon.
Other than the City Drug and Foster's, there was the Southside Pharmacy operated by Everett Nelson where City Hall is now located, and Charlie Watson's Brownie Drug on the west side in the building now occupied by Starling Miller's Real Estate & Auction business. Others came along later, but those were the depression-era drug stores in Perry.
All four drug stores here in the 1930s had a soda fountain near the front entrance. Ours was white marble with an 8' by 10' plate glass mirror framing the back bar, where patrons could admire their reflection while sipping a soda. Thin tumblers of crystal-like glass, each imprinted with the Coca-Cola trade name, stood in gleaming six-ounce and twelve-ounce sizes carefully stacked while awaiting a customer's order. Atop the fountain were twin dispensers of carbonated water flanked on either side by rows of ceramic syrup containers topped by chrome pumps to dispense measured amounts as a glass was held beneath them. Ice cream was stored in a refrigerated cabinet beneath the syrup containers.
Each drug store had its own special brand of rich, creamy ice cream, all of it imported from Oklahoma City. The Southside Pharmacy offered Sterling ice cream and the City Drug had Crystal ice cream. Both brands came from the exact same dairy in Oklahoma City; only the labels on the shipping cartons were different. Even so, the two stores waged daily advertising campaigns in The Journal to extol the special virtues of their identical product.
The stores all had their cadres of high school-age soda jerks. The pay wasn't much (about 15-20 cents an hour) but the ice cream benefits were pretty good. Several attempts were made through the years to come up with a tonier name than "soda jerk." Once, the slightly stilted title of "fountaineer" was tried as a substitute, but that failed to catch on the same way "sanitary engineer" never quite made it as a job title for those who labor in the sewer.
Each store also had at least one "car hop" in the warm weather months. These were teen-age boys or girls who perched on a chair or stool outside the drug store, attired in an apron and a cloth cap, and who met each arriving car at the curb with order pad and pencil at the ready. This was in the day before drive-ins. Your limeades or frosted Cokes were delivered to the door of your car on a summer evening by one of these car hops, using a metal tray just about like the one now found at Sonic. Tips for car hops were optional and rare. Except for the glamour of the job, it didn't have much to offer.
Soda jerks were sort of like youthful non-alcoholic bartenders of that strictly prohibition era. Their usual uniform was a clean white apron and a jaunty cloth hat, white shirt and/or blouse, white duck slacks and white shoes. They could it concoct just about any exotic drink you wanted if it required carbonated water, ice cream, syrup and shaved ice. Many of them could do it with their own distinctive flourishes, flipping a scoop of ice cream into a frosty 12-ounce glass with great élan.
Each store had its own star soda jerk. Some that I remember are Johnny Tilman, LeRoy (Speedy) Kelley and Don Robinson at Brownie's, Arthur Kretsch, Ralph Foster Jr. and his brother, Woody, at the Corner Drug, Ned Foster at the Southside, and Bailey Render, Johnny Schultz, Doris Doyle and my cousin, Fred W Beers, at the City Drug. Yes, I toiled there, but I was never a star performer. My sisters also spent some time as car hops. Woody, Ned, Arthur, Johnny and Cousin Fred also were druggists and filled prescriptions, but they willingly took their turns behind the fountain as well. There were numerous others at all four stores, but those are the names that come to mind now.
It was fun to come downtown on a pleasant summer evening just to watch the cars circling the square and peeling off for a light refreshment from one of the drug store fountains. Those were the days of the Great Depression all right, but most of us didn't know we were experiencing hard times. I guess there were just too many enjoyable diversions to distract us from the fact that money was in short supply and that we were supposed to be suffering.
Besides, to a teen-ager, 15 cents an hour plus all the ice cream you could scarf down was pretty close to heaven all by itself. If you were lucky enough to land one of those jobs at the drug store, that is.
So, on the eve of this Christmas Eve, 1994,1 find myself looking back on that time with great fondness and a warm glow, even though this also is the 54th anniversary of the passing of the City Drug Store from the square in Perry. More on this subject probably will be forthcoming.
Merry Christmas and a Joyous New Year to one and all.