This is an unexpected trip down memory lane to my youth, growing up in Cedar Vale, Kansas. The occasion was a Christmas SKYPE call with my son and family in Longmont, Colorado. They showed me four paintings that their boys received as gifts from my first wife, Joan. She had found them in an unopened trunk at her place and thought the boys might like to see them. I had done the four paintings in 1951, at age 14, when I was working at Whitney Drug Store. They were given as Christmas gifts to my four grandparents. That reminded me of the following story which comes from my book, Pebbles: Memories of a Small-Town Kansas Boy.
The Whitney Drug Store was the setting for many of my memories of growing up in Cedar Vale, Kansas. As a youngster I was fond of visiting Mrs. Walker, the owner of the store. I would find Mrs. Walker sitting at the soda fountain in the evening.
At night, customers would be few and far between, and I would sit with her and listen to her stories. Mrs. Walker had a wry sense of humor that always delighted me. I remember her description of the origin of humor as one caveman pitching a rock on the head of another caveman and laughing uproariously. She understood that aggression is often the basis of humor. (Elyn’s late father, Leonard Feinberg, an expert on humor and satire, would have agreed.)
When I was around ten years of age, I would make a round of downtown Cedar Vale several evenings each week. I would first visit Bill Leonard at the movie theater for a talk and then walk up to spend some time with Mrs. Walker. She always seemed to have time for me. Mrs. Walker had a keen interest in my budding fascination with chemistry. Her contributions to that interest were an outdated copy of the Merck Index that she gave me and the fact that she would sell me any chemical in the pharmacy except hydrofluoric acid, which even she realized was much too dangerous for a 10-year-old boy to be fooling around with. She did sell me hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid, and my fingers were often stained yellow with acid burns. Using the chemicals she sold me, I experimented with making gunpowder and gun cotton, along with many other foul-smelling mixtures. That I survived all my early chemical experiments is a wonder. (Sadly, such youthful chemistry experiments are now curtailed by stringent federal restrictions on chemical sales.)
The Whitney Drug Store pharmacy was what would now be called a “compounding pharmacy.” Then it was just what Mrs. Walker did. Mrs. Walker was the local and only purveyor of many over-the-counter concoctions that had been invented by her father, the late Dr. Whitney. I well remember her back in the pharmacy brewing up another batch of Dr. Whitney’s version of Pepto-Bismol™. It had a similar color and texture to the patent medicine product but included additional secret ingredients known only to her. I am told by another former Whitney Drug Store employee that Mrs. Walker had a special preparation to keep girls in top form during those “special times of the month.” The mixture was described as black and horrible tasting, and the ingredients, of course, were secret, but it apparently allowed the girls to keep on working at full efficiency during their periods.
Many Cedar Valeians swore by Dr. Whitney’s preparations. I wonder if the secret formulas died with Mrs. Walker or if her son, Dr. Bill Walker, one of the local physicians, kept them. Her preparations were not limited to remedies for her human customers. She also stocked a complete line of veterinary products that were in good demand among the farmers and ranchers in the Chautauqua County area.
The other drug store in Cedar Vale was much more like a modern pharmacy. Don Hankins only sold preparations that were marketed nationally, and his drug store was much more “upscale” than Mrs. Walker’s establishment. I wonder who actually purchased prescriptions at the Hankins Drug Store, since Dr. Hays, the only doctor in town other than Dr. Bill Walker, maintained his own pharmacy and dispensed directly to his patients. Dr. Walker probably steered his patients toward his mother’s establishment, so Hankins’ clientele must have been what was left over, the patients of doctors in neighboring towns.
Mrs. Walker’s daughter Julia ran a hair salon at the rear of the drug store. She was an avid amateur artist and she taught many of the children in town to paint in oils. I was one of her students. I remember spending many days in the corner of her shop painting amidst all the hair cutting, coloring, and “perming” that were going on all around. Julia would take a minute to look at what I was painting and make suggestions for improvements or techniques I might try. She never took one penny for her teaching, and she made a significant contribution to the artistic sensibilities of her students. I entered many of my oil paintings of landscapes and animals in the county fair in Sedan and was proud to display the blue and red ribbons I won. I also did oil paintings to give as Christmas gifts to my grandparents and other relatives.
When I was thirteen I applied for a job at the Whitney Drug Store and spent several years as a “soda jerk” and general clerk in the store. Mrs. Walker was not one to allow slacking. If there were no customers she always had a job for me to do, such as cleaning up, dusting the shelves, etc. I was paid $.25 per hour for my work. I thoroughly enjoyed the interactions with customers and making shakes, malts, sodas, cherry phosphates, and sundaes for the other kids in town. Mrs. Walker kept a stern eye on the quantities I used in my soda-fountain preparations lest I be too generous with the ice cream and chocolate syrup I used in the fountain preparations for friends.
Each year when Independence Day approached, a display counter near the front of the store was cleared out and restocked with all kinds of fireworks. Kids could place an order and have their fireworks put aside for them in brown paper sacks for later sale when their parents showed up. Firecrackers, big and small; skyrockets of various sizes and colors; sparklers; Vesuvius Fountains; whirligigs; and even those stinky black snakes that marred the sidewalks all over town—all were for sale at Whitney Drug. Every year one heard of fingers being blown off and eyes being put out, but it was all in the name of patriotic fervor and it was all legal. Cedar Vale didn’t have a municipal fireworks display, so we made do with what we could purchase at Whitney Drug Store. I spent at least a week or two of my salary at the store buying fireworks each year. Mrs. Walker didn’t offer an employee discount.
Speaking of salary, my payday was at the end of business on Saturday night. Saturday night was the biggest event in the commercial life of Cedar Vale, and the Whitney Drug Store was always packed all evening on Saturday. Mrs. Walker would pay me my wages as I was cleaning up at the end of Saturday evening. I had to be very careful because she would often try to short me on my pay. When I called her on it, she would grumble a little and cough up the rest of what I was owed. Mrs. Walker was not one to let our friendship or my young age get in the way of trying to maximize profits.
As I grew older I was offered a position as a clerk in L. C. Adam Mercantile Company, and I moved across the street to cleaner and better paying employment. I remember my years hanging around the drug store and working for Mrs. Walker with great fondness. I can say that Mrs. Walker was a significant practical teacher for me as I was growing up in Cedar Vale. I can still hear her cackling laugh at the absurdity of us humans and our foibles. Much of my present sense of humor was honed in her presence, and she also supported my early interest in science.