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Photo Friday: Soda Fountain Memories

One of the iconic businesses that existed in most Kansas towns of the 20th century was the local drug store and pharmacy. The business, itself, underwent great changes as the patent medicine sellers whose medicine could barely be distinguished from the wares of snake oil salesmen, began to fade into obscurity, and the pharmacy business took hold in America.

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Dr. W. H. H. Smith, right, operated this pharmacy in Alta Vista, Kansas when this 1909 real photo postcard was created.

Many of the early Kansas drug stores were operated by local physicians who operated medical practices and dispensed medicine. In Alma, Dr. A. A. Meyer was among the town’s early physicians, and he operated a drug store in the Meyer building for many years. Likewise was the case with Dr. W. H. H. Smith in Alta Vista, a registered druggist and licensed physician who offered both services.

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This interior view of an Alma, Kansas soda shop dates from the late 1930s.

In 1903 Louis Liggett organized United Drug Stores, a cooperative of forty drug stores that purchased their stock in large quantities and sold products under a common Rexall brand name. After World War II, the organization sold franchises to 12,000 drug stores, nationwide, and the Rexall name became a common sight on the Main Streets of small towns across America.

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This is the earlier of two interior views of an Alma, Kansas soda shop. This view shows the lunch counter, booths and tables in the eatery.

In Wabaunsee County, Preston Dean operated Dunn Drugs on Main Street in Eskridge for over fifty years, and in Alma, Milton Rubottom operated Rubottom Drug Store in the historic business district, both Rexall franchisees. Both men were college educated, licensed pharmacists, and both purchased drug stores from retiring or deceased druggists who had operated in the same location.

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Preston Dunn, left, is seen in this interior view of his Rexall drug store in Eskridge, Kansas, circa, 1940. Photo courtesy Dean Dunn.

One common feature of the 20th century drug store was the soda fountain. Soda fountains were invented in Europe in the mid-1800s, but they were not popularized in America until after World War I. Soda fountains offered customers an opportunity to rest from their shopping, visit with their friends, and enjoy a beverage or even a sandwich or light meal. The “sodas” were a combination of carbonated water, dispensed through a tap, and flavoring syrup.

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Preston Dunn, at rear wearing suspenders, stands at the end of the soda fountain and lunch counter in his Dunn Drug Rexall store in Eskridge, Kansas, circa 1955. Photo courtesy Dean Dunn.

Soda fountains were very numerous and popular in post-World War II America. They were not only a phenomenon of small town America; they were equally popular in the urban centers and cities.

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This is the second of two interior views of an Alma, Kansas soda shop and eatery. A 1944 calendar is hanging on the back wall.

Another variant on the soda fountain was the lunch counter. Many drug stores particularly in urban areas, offered lunch counters where customers could purchase lunch and grilled foods served at a long counter. If successful in attracting customers a store with a lunch counter might install a few booths for the lunch crowd. It was just good business, after dining, many lunch counter customers would make other purchases before returning to work.

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The staff of the Harvey House Café in Alma, Kansas pose behind the lunch counter. From left, in cowboy hat, owner, Melvin Zeckser, Naomi Mulford, Selma Miller, Ellen Herren, Evelyn Zeckser, and Helen Sommer

The advent of the discount drug store chain was a nagging assault on the Rexall company’s business model. Most Rexall stores were independently owned, and when the big box grocery stores began to sell pharmaceuticals, Rexall suffered such losses that Rexall was sold in 1977, and all of the company-owned stores closed. Some independent franchises continued to operate, and a few still exist today.

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Milton Rubottom’s Rexall Drug Store, 327 Missouri Street in Alma, Kansas is visible at the far right in this Charles Herman color slide from the late 1970s.

The plight of the Rexall stores became the plight of the small town pharmacy. For towns with populations less than 1,000 people, drug stores could not remain self-sustaining. Even in urban areas, the days of the independent drug store were numbered as the large chain stores cornered the market. Along with the disappearance of the small town independent drug stores, drug store soda fountains have virtually vanished, as well.

Click on any image below to view all in a gallery format.

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