By the turn of the 20th century, the explosion of railroad building in rural Georgia had spawned hundreds of towns at coal and water stops that dotted all rail lines. Many of them became relatively prosperous places from sawmills, turpentine stills and cotton gins. All but the smallest had one or more of each of the following: churches and grocery, hardware, clothing and drug stores. The official title for a drug store is pharmacy, but everybody called it a “drug store” because it was the place to buy both prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
For various reasons, drug stores were the places where people “gathered up” and passed some “visiting” time. Most other types of stores did not lend themselves to this sort of things. Few had places to sit. Customers came in, bought whatever they came for, then left. From the grocery store, raw meat had to be taken home quickly.
Drug stores sold drugs, an important and possibly a life-or-death product. They were essential links with the family doctor and sometimes provided education about the medication and how best to use it. However, a wide range of other things, some not available elsewhere, were sold in drug stores and these brought in many and varied customers.
Some offerings were not displayed but asked for in quiet, almost whispered, conversation with a clerk, condoms and tampons being obvious examples. This also was the place where ladies went to buy perfumes and makeup. Men might be able to buy Prince Albert smoking tobacco and the folds for rolling handmade cigarettes at crossroads stores, but drug stores offered several brands of cigarettes and some cigars as well. There were over-the-counter pain killers, especially aspirin. Bayer even sold a flat tin container of them for folks who wanted or could afford only a few.
It was the soda fountain that attracted all sorts of people and held some of them on the spot to get reacquainted and catch up on local news (or gossip). Young people might do some tentative pre-courting or maybe something a bit more serious.
At the center of the soda fountain was a mechanical fountain that dispensed the syrup of the secret Coca-Cola formula mixed with carbonated water into the iconic pear shaped Coca-Cola glasses. If the fountain malfunctioned, the same result could be had by pumping Coke syrup into a glass and adding carbonated water. In season, the “soda jerk” — kid working behind the counter — might make lemonade, limeade, even orangeade.
The most sought-after treats involved ice cream, beginning with the ice cream cone, a wafer-like cone with a scoop of ice cream at its open end. Typical flavors were vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. Specialty flavors were rarely stocked in places where customers stuck with the basics and the unusual might be spurned. Store owners knew that the profit margin on ice cream products was thin.
Ice cream served in special dishes to be eaten with spoons was more elegant than when served in cones. It cost more, but entitled a customer to sit at an ice cream parlor table or booth. It was also a cool thing to do when treating a girlfriend. The next step up from ice cream in a dish was a sundae, which is ice cream in a dish drizzled with chocolate syrup and topped with candied fruits or nuts. This is for those with enough change to splurge on self or self and friend. The ultimate is banana split — all of the above served over slices of banana — when such fruit was available.
The most popular ice cream treat among the country boys that frequented the store where I worked was a milkshake: thick syrup in the desired flavor, milk and ice cream vigorously blended in a shaker designed for this purpose. Flavors available were vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. Most were made with vanilla ice cream, although it is possible to make chocolate shakes with chocolate syrup and ice cream or strawberry shakes with strawberry syrup and ice cream. (I have tried many combinations.) Some customers opted for cheaper treats, one of the flavored syrups stirred into cold milk and served in a Coke glass, of course.
As was true for other businesses, Saturday afternoons and early evenings were the busiest time of the week in towns where farming and farm families were the center of economic and social life. If possible, Saturday was freed up from farm work for a fishing trip or a trip to town for a Western movie, necessary groceries and a stop at the drug store to buy aspirin, visit and enjoy a shake or Coke. Parenthetically, I had brief conversations with many friends as I washed Coke glasses and other equipment and cleaned the counter most of the day as the soda jerk in charge.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.