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Memories linger of drug stores in area's history
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Local historian Desmond Kendrick shows a case of memorabilia from drug stores that operated locally in the past. Kendrick gave a lecture about the stores Wednesday. (Bulletin photo by Mickey Powell)

Friday, November 6, 2009

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Think there are a lot of drug stores in Henry County and Martinsville now?

More than 40 pharmacies were in business in the Martinsville area at one point in the early 20th century, said local historian Desmond Kendrick.

Wednesday afternoon, he presented a lecture at the New College Institute on local drug stores that operated many years ago.

Most of the stores had soda fountains, Kendrick said. Beginning in the early 1920s when prohibition led to bars being closed, the "fountains" were popular places for area residents to dine, considering there were fewer full-service restaurants than there are now, he said.

Soda fountains at first were simple counters offering several flavorings that could be mixed with water. Carbonated water eventually was developed, and that led to soft drinks like those sold today. The fountains then evolved into small restaurants where people could enjoy not only a beverage, but also a sandwich or a dish of ice cream, according to Kendrick.

A popular attraction at the fountain at Kearfott's drug store uptown was its grilled cheese sandwiches, he remembered.

As more restaurants were established and bottled soft drinks grew popular, drug stores started to phase out their soda fountains, he said.

But drug stores of the past were more than places to buy medicine or eat a light meal. While they generally were not large stores, they served much the same purpose of today's department stores, offering customers a variety of merchandise such as cosmetics, candy, stationery and phonograph records, Kendrick said.

Most stores of the era specialized in one category of merchandise, such as clothing or millinery, and except for drug stores, few merchants sold a wide variety of items under one roof, he recalled.

Kearfott's even sold school textbooks, Kendrick said. Back then, schools did not supply textbooks and students had to buy them, he noted.

Lucy Wilson, one of about 50 people who attended the lecture, recalled that Kearfott's sold a homemade antiseptic solution. It came in purple bottles and did not sting when it was applied to the body, she said.

Customers called it "magic medicine," Wilson said.

Early 20th century drug stores did not keep medicines on display on shelves. They were kept in glass cases, mainly to keep dust off them.

Noting that sanitary practices were different then, Kendrick said many drug stores - like other types of stores in that era - had wooden floors that got dusty and often had to be swept.

In terms of cleanliness, "dust was the biggest concern of the time," he said.

Along with Kearfott's, which opened in the late 1800s, other popular area drug stores that Kendrick mentioned included:

"¢ Fagg's, which first was known as Larrabee's, uptown. Kendrick said he understands that Fagg's was the first area store to offer 24-hour photographic film processing.

"¢ Patterson's, which was a couple of doors down from Fagg's, across from the former Henry County Courthouse. It actually was Patterson's No. 6, he said, as it was part of a small Lynchburg-based chain that later was acquired by Revco, which later was acquired by CVS.

"¢ Wampler's on Main Street. Many years before Walgreens opened its first local company-operated store on Commonwealth Boulevard a few years ago, Wampler's was "a Walgreen agency" and sold the company's products, he said. A sign on the storefront noted the affiliation, a photo showed.

"¢ Bud Shelton's Pharmacy, which was on Oakdale Street in a converted house known as "the pill box." The structure has since been demolished.

The Martinsville Drug Co. and Williamson Drug Co. had in-store prescription counters, but they also made drugs sold at other local stores, Kendrick said.

Dr. Dana O. Baldwin, the first local black physician, operated a drug store on Fayette Street in the early- to mid-1900s. Kendrick said Baldwin operated a restaurant called "The Blue Dragon" in the store's basement.

However, he said the first local drug store targeting black residents opened on Fayette Street in 1923 and was operated by Patty Penn.

The store advertised "sundries and toilet articles and preparations," Kendrick said, adding that he wonders what the latter term meant.

While there still are local, independently owned drug stores, many stores of yesteryear have closed in recent decades, the victims of competition among retailers and changing needs of customers, he said.

Kendrick said he has been interested in drug stores since his childhood. His interest was spurred by his interest in "country doctors" who once practiced in rural areas and sometimes made their own medicines, he said.

He welcomes hearing from people who worked in drug stores of the past so he can learn about their experiences, he added.


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