- To keep up the tradition, some pharmacies in the U.S. still prepare old-fashioned soda-fountain-phosphate drinks.
- During the Prohibition, when bars were shut down, the number of soda-fountain pharmacys soared.
- The first U.S. Patent for dispensing soda water through a soda-fountain spigot dates back to the early 1800s.
The jukebox is playing Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”, as Malli Jarrett, Nathaniel Fornash and the Griffith & Feil Drug counter prepare old-fashioned soda-fountain phosphate beverages.
These soda fountains were very popular in the early 1900s. They were often located in pharmacies and served as a gathering place during Prohibition, when bars closed. Over the last half-century, however, the number of soda fountains has decreased, and they have been relegated to scrapbooks in U.S. History.
Ric Griffith, a West Virginian, is continuing the tradition. His 131-year old business is a Norman Rockwell-style scene and combines time travel tourism with a Norman Rockwell-style setting.
Griffith stated that “people would spend more time at a soda machine, sit down, and share stories.” It would not be a place to grab lunch. It was a location where you experienced something.”
Griffith and his daughter Heidi are pharmacists, whose pharmacy staff work in the back. The restaurant’s front offers daily specials for lunch and dinner. The atmosphere is a mix of neon pink signs, black and white photos of local landmarks in black and white, marbled counters with retro padded stools, and metal tiled ceiling.
Of course, there are also those sweet and tart phosphate beverages.
Griffith leaves soda-jerks Jarrett & Fornash to do the dispensing (not really jerks, but the term is used to describe the motion of pulling the handle on the soda water dispenser).
Jarrett commented, “It is fun to work at a place such as this. I enjoy watching the customers walk in, look around, and take a step into the past, telling me how they used to be here when they were young.”
The first U.S. Patent for carbonated water dispensing through a fountain spigot was issued in the early 1800s. Later, pharmacists began mixing tonics with acid phosphate for customers seeking cures. The recipes and flavors improved as soda fountain production and efficiency improved. Drinks were named Green River, Black Cow and other names.
Customers were able to eat while they waited for their prescriptions.
Since its opening in Oregon, Grants Pass Pharmacy serves phosphate drinks. The number of pharmacies selling soda fountain drinks exploded during those years. Alcohol was prohibited from 1920 until 1933 under Prohibition.
Michele Belcher, the pharmacist-owner of the Grants Pass Pharmacy, was addicted to soda since middle school. Her parents had bought the pharmacy from its original owner in 1973. She said that updating the old equipment and preserving the character of original soda fountain is part of the challenge.
Belcher noted that “many people make an effort to touch base with me, or leave a message that they appreciate that it is still in our community.”
In the 1950s, pharmacists began to rethink their business plans in order to maximize the space available. They replaced the soda fountains with shelves that contained household staples. Mom-and-pop pharmacies couldn’t compete with mall food courts, chain pharmacy and fast-food restaurant competition or government regulations.
Others remained open, but either closed the soda fountain or pharmacy side. Some morphed to side businesses, such as gift shops or ice cream parlors.
The last decade was particularly rough. In 2018, the Highland Park Soda Fountain, in Dallas, that celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2012, closed. Central Drug Store, Bessemer City in North Carolina, which had been open for 94 years closed in 2021. Borroum’s Drug Store, Corinth in Mississippi, closed its pharmacy in 2021 after 150 years of business. However, the soda fountain remained open.
In the case of Knoxville in Tennessee, a new owner is literally emerging from the ashes. The Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain opened in 2016 inside a 100-year-old building which had been devastated by two fires.
According to its website, The Phoenix is not about “resurrecting the neighborhood pharmacy of your grandfather; it’s about reintroducing that attitude.”
In 2016, Rhode Island pharmacist Christina Procaccianti opened the Green Line Apothecary in two locations, which is a full service pharmacy with a soda fountain.
Ric Griffith (74), a partner at Griffith & Feil in West Virginia is very proud of his collection, which includes 41 presidential signatures, and other memorabilia. He is always happy to answer questions about them.
He can’t recall the soda fountain he used to play in as a kid. In 1957, his father took it down. Griffith installed one in 2004, after three years’ of meticulous preparation work. “I’ve always wanted that,” he said.
Griffith remembered a man in a booth, sitting with his granddaughter, telling stories from his youth. The man said that decades ago, after school, he used to arrive at the same booths and ordered a cherry Coke. Griffith said that he listened to this conversation and “the look on his granddaughter’s face was beautiful.” “She had never imagined her grandfather to be young. “He was always her grandpa.”
Griffith was encouraged that Americans can still enjoy what used to be a popular tradition in small towns throughout America: eating together and sharing stories, rather than opting for the fast food drive-thru.
Griffith explained that when we preserve the past, we are not only preserving artifacts. “We are preserving a lifestyle, a manner of interaction.” This soda fountain has been a blessing to me in so many ways.