Remember when the corner drug store was the after-school hangout, where a frosty milkshake, thick chocolate malt or fizzy fountain Coke could take the edge off most teenage rainy days?
If you thought those happy days were gone, think again, because a surprising number of those old soda fountains are still putting ice cream smiles on kids and adults alike. At least two of those establishments are steeped in family history.
Smith Pharmacy in Burkesville, near the Tennessee border, is the oldest such continuously running business in the state.
“I grew up working at the fountain, especially on Saturdays, when all the farmers and their wives and children came to town to do their business for the week,” said Laura Lee Butler, who manages the store with her husband, Doug. “The women would fill our tables and chairs and stools and visit while the men went to the feed store.”
In 1814, Laura Lee’s great grandpa and two brothers began the establishment as a general store that sold medicinals to the community. Though various partners came and went during the years, the family continued a line of ownership throughout the 19th century. During that time, the business morphed from its original moniker, the J.P.R. (for brothers John, Paul and Reuben Alexander), through several incarnations to today’s Smith Pharmacy, owned by Laura Lee’s dad, a historian who preserved the original pharmacy’s fixtures in an upstairs museum.
Though never a sandwich-for-lunch spot, its fountain still serves traditional hand-dipped ice cream, milkshakes and banana splits to folks waiting to have prescriptions filled and to downtown workers.
“It’s not like in the old days,” she continued. “My great granddad built three buildings right here together on this side of the square. One was a dry goods business, another sold groceries and hardware and the third was the drug store. There’s such a history, and I was brought up to think history is important. We’re probably losing money on the fountain now, but there’s no way we’d close it.”
The Bluegrass is home to another family drug store venture that turned 50 in January 2008. A hotbed of local gossip and University of Kentucky sideline refereeing, Wheeler Pharmacy is so popular that anywhere from 10 to 30 “coffee clubbers” wait outside for the doors to open at 9 a.m. no matter the weather.
“Half just come in for coffee and to talk,” said Stuart Wheeler, manager. “The rest will get a biscuit or bacon and eggs, and the girls will sometimes have them cooked and in front of the seat where they normally sit before they get here because they get the same thing every day.”
The younger Chevy Chase generation from nearby Christ the King School hits the Romany Road landmark in the afternoon.
“Every day after 3:15, we get 10 or 20 kids – except on Fridays, when we’re bombarded!” Wheeler laughed. “Milkshakes, Ale-8s, chicken rings and French fries seem to be their staples.”
Stuart’s dad, Buddy Wheeler, a UK pharmacy grad, opened the store in 1958, offering salad sandwiches and ice cream treats from a cold menu. A 1965 remodel added a grill and hamburgers, chuck wagons and grilled chicken sandwiches.
These days, up to 36 hungry people can slide into one of three turquoise padded booths or onto a stool at one of two ’50s-style horseshoe-shaped Formica counters with all chrome accessories. Scrumptious choices include a full breakfast; hamburgers and cheeseburgers; homemade salad spreads (chicken, ham, egg, tuna and olive nut); homemade vegetable soup and chili; pork tenderloin, barbecue and fish sandwiches; fried chicken, fish, shrimp or wing baskets with fries; and hand-dipped ice cream, sodas, malts and real milkshakes.
And by the way, Buddy, now 74, still fills in as a pharmacist when needed.
A lot of drug stores have replaced the old fountains with ventures that make more money, said Wheeler, but even though his is “probably breaking even,” he – like Laura Lee Butler – has never considered closing it.
“From a business point of view and a pharmacy point of view, the fountain generates foot traffic throughout the store that’s irreplaceable,” he explained. “Dad always said, ‘As long as the fountain can pay for itself, it’s worth its weight in gold.’”
As are the memories of yet another generation.