Old Time Soda Fountain will celebrate its tenth anniversary in Allerton

A meeting in Knapp Park in 2008 by a group of locals sparked a journey of restoration

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Behind the counter, the original oak where Chris Meyers served his customers in Allerton, and in whose mirror Hal Greenlee combed his hair to make Meyers mad. Above left, Don Duncan’s DX cap sits on the restored cabinets, stripped of paint by Richard Henderson. / Photo by Jason W. Selby

One of the most unappreciated, unique—and, amazingly, still unknown—draws to Wayne County is turning 10 years old this fall.

In 2009, around the time alumni were returning for class reunions in Allerton, the Old Time Soda Fountain had opened for business on the west side of Central Ave. This sterling achievement took a group effort.

In 2008, Ross Blount, current Allerton Mayor Doug Downs, Becky Hysell and Kent Lunsford signed the purchase agreement from an auctioneering firm.

Richard Henderson assisted in the matter.

The original building was constructed in 1885. For most of its existence, it has been a drugstore.

“Mark Nessen just loved coming and seeing all these old things,” Lorena Blount said of the late owner of Nessen Pharmacy in nearby Corydon. “He also donated some from his own collection and was very supportive of this whole venture, which we appreciated.”

The Old Time Soda Fountain was not the first drugstore Henderson was involved in purchasing.

In Newton as a young man, he bought a business previously owned by Ron Roush, who also operated what would become Nessen Pharmacy.

“I used to go into Roush’s and buy gifts like perfume for my mom or my girlfriend at the time,” Henderson said. “Kay Roush would always just put on a show, spray a bit on her arm and waft it toward you.”

Support is the key for the newly remodeled drugstore. A memorial plaque above the soda fountain contains the names of 36 Allerton grads.

Many donors remain anonymous.

Currently, there are 12 members on the Old Time Soda Fountain Board.

“The first three years, when we were so busy with the restoration, Allerton High School Alumni gave over $40,000,” Lorena said. “Which I think is just an amazing show of support, because this is a very old group—our high school closed in 1964.”

For two years, it was Allerton-Clio-Lineville, before Wayne Community High School began in 1966, after which Allerton served as a junior high and then a first grade. The building was razed in the 1990s.

There is also the Silver Cords program, a graduation award for Wayne students who complete 160 hours of volunteer service. This May, Lorena interviewed nine for summer and autumn:

“That is an exciting thing to train high school kids and see them become involved again.”

“We had a karaoke night, and there were a bunch of kids from Mormon Trail,” Ross added. “Oh, they were good singers.”

In the last year, 28 adults have donated their time. Last Saturday night, they served 64 orders.

“At last year’s Allertonworld Fair, we were open from 10 in the morning until late into evening,” Lorena said. “They were filling these tables at 10:30 at night. I said, ‘Friends, we’ve got to go home—it’s getting late.’ They love coming here and have really supported our restoration.

“I saw so many people this last Saturday night—there was a group of fifth and sixth grade kids, some even younger, just waiting at the door for us to open. Then they came in, played the games, bought some cokes, and I had a deep feeling of nostalgia, because that’s how it used to be. Saturday in Allerton—what do you do? You meet your friends at the Soda Fountain.”

Rich

Henderson graduated from Allerton High School in 1960. His involvement with the Soda Fountain—which for many is a fountain of youth—is typical of the myriad volunteers essential to its survival.

Henderson lives in Newton, where he can watch his grandchildren participate in sports.
His grandson is on the baseball team.

He tries to make it down home to Wayne County at least once or twice a month.

“I like to change the windows out so it looks like there’s something going on in there,” Henderson said. “I hate to see these small towns wither and die.”

When he was growing up in Allerton, there were four grocery stores on the main strip. The community was self-contained.

“That was always like ground zero for me. When we moved to Allerton, my dad worked at Pickerell’s. About nine o’clock at night, he would get a little break, and we’d come up to the drugstore and have a Coke.

“When I started delivering papers, they were brought to the drugstore. After football, basketball and track, we always went up and had a Coke and sat around shooting the breeze.

“I feel at home when I’m in there.”

At the time, Bill McClymonds was Allerton’s track coach. McClymonds would go on to teach at Wayne, and the track at Saling Athletic Complex is now named after him.

Henderson was a speedster, and he made the State Meet in five events one spring. His senior year, the Blue Devils made it to the final 16 of the boys’ basketball tournament. A few seasons later, Allerton, led by the late Bill Taylor, made it to State, losing to Urbandale.

Brother Ben Taylor is secretary of the Allerton Alumni Association. Many of those athletes spent their time after practice at the Soda Fountain.

“He had a sports brain,” Henderson said of Bill Taylor. “He knew where the defense was going to be.

“My junior year, I didn’t play basketball because my folks were destitute and couldn’t even afford tennis shoes. I went out my senior year, and my coach didn’t understand—he was mad I hadn’t gone out as a junior.”

Henderson would go on to marry Fran Bryan, a fellow alum.

“It was the place to meet your friends,” Lorena said. “As an example, we received mail from a 1940s Allerton grad. He said, ‘My girlfriend and I, every afternoon after basketball, we’d come here and have a Coke or a malt. My wife and I had been married over 60 years, and she died last Christmas, so I’m thinking of her and thinking of the Soda Fountain. I’d like to send you this gift.’”

“Rich has donated all of this, and his expertise,” Ross said. “One nice thing about it, people of all economic statuses come on in.”

Though this pharmaceutical dispenser is not original, it would pass as one from the Golden Age of the Old Time Soda Fountain. Right, Don Sapp’s Allerton High School letter jacket hangs in the corner where everyone used to drink a malt after basketball practice. / Photo by Jason W. Selby

Blount

“It’s the only soda fountain in Iowa that’s a non-profit,” Lorena said. “It truly is a community endeavor.”

Like Henderson, Lorena grew up going to the old drugstore after school and basketball practice. She graduated from Allerton in 1956.

Lorena and husband Ross first met on a bus ride of Iowa State University students traveling to Athens, Ohio to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. give a speech during the Christmas holiday of 1959. This winter will be the 60th anniversary of their journey.

“He was just starting his sit-in movements,” Lorena said. “When he was in seminary in Chicago, I marched with Dr. King.”

“It was inspiring,” Ross said of listening to King. “Discrimination was a major problem in housing.”

“At that time, a black student at Iowa State couldn’t get a haircut or an apartment in Ames,” Lorena said. “They had to go to Des Moines.

“Ross was a leader in organizing those of us who’d gone to hear Dr. King, going around to different dormitories and clubs and speaking about it. There was plenty to do on our campus.”

For the Blounts’ support of desegregation, the Iowa State Daily called them Communists.

Ross grew up in Mobile, the second biggest city in Alabama, on the Gulf of Mexico. His father died when he was young after a motorcycle accident when he contracted gangrene, then spinal meningitis.

Ross had a paper route on the border between the white community and the black community. His mother a widow, the family was far from wealthy.

When Ross was a teenager, his mother married a preacher and moved the family to rural Iowa. His activism did not come from a vacuum. As early as the 1940s, his mother supported integration in the Deep South.

“I’d never been on a farm until we came up here,” Ross said. “[Then] I worked on farms as a hired man. I wanted to be a missionary.

“I never met a black kid my age until I went to Iowa State.”

At first, he studied ag education, switching to rural sociology as a graduate student, when he helped plan the trip to hear King speak in Ohio.

Restoration

“I always wanted to buy [the Soda Fountain],” Henderson said. “One day, Milford Lewis told me when I was standing there having a malt, ‘I’m going to sell it. Do you want to buy it?’ I said it wasn’t the right time.”

It was the Fountain and Sundry Store then. It was sold two weeks later.

“I don’t think much of the fountain worked,” Henderson said.

“When Milford died, his heir sold it to an auction company,” Ross said. “A lot of us here said, ‘listen, we’re not going to let this place go.’ They knew Rich was interested, because he’d made some inquiries about buying it. With all of us working together, he’s been able to do what he had a heart for early on.”

“I think the company formed a kind of affection for Allerton,” Lorena said, “as they worked to have the auction.”

The group gathered at the gazebo across the street in Knapp Park to plan the resurrection of their beloved childhood drugstore and malt shop.

Former Wayne County journalist and rural Clio resident Nancy Hamar spread the word.

“She really took the project under her editorial wing,” Lorena said. “She was so active until she moved away. We’ve had many professional people come in and help us for free, like Matt Clayton with plumbing. They wanted to do their part.”

The Honorable Dusti Relph, when she owned a law office in Corydon with her mother Roberta Chambers, provided free legal services.

“I’m so proud of the vision,” Lorena said, “of those original board members who said, ‘We can’t let an auction company just carve this up—this is a real treasure Allerton has—if all of this is carted away, it will just be another depressing, empty building falling down on Main Street.

“What we’ve done is brought back a vision of the original founders of Allerton. It has become a bit of a museum.”

“Everyone’s put in a lot of work,” Henderson said. “We were fortunate at the time in that we had Doug Downs, who was a contractor, and Bill Yeager, who was a plumber. The south wall collapsed while we were working on it—there was a big snowstorm. We had to wait until springtime.

“Right after we got $6,000 windows installed, an older woman accidently jumped the curb and took out the south section, bricks and everything, and knocked out the wooden door.”

They used brick from the old Wayne County Jail in Corydon to restore the building.

Nancy Bennett advised. June Downs, Randy and Grace Ann Roe, Tim and Cindy Kelly and Kay Boem are just a few of the people who have put in the time to make the restoration possible.

DDT

Henderson worked at Murphy’s clothing store in Corydon right out of high school. When he got a job on the pipeline for $2.32 an hour, Henderson felt blessed.

“Because everyone else was making around $1.10.”

But by December of that year, the pipeline was finished. Henderson moved to Des Moines and got a job at a parking lot. It was clear those wages would not support a family. He graduated from Drake University in 1967, then opened his first pharmacy on Ingersoll Ave.

Henderson has been retired for 17 years. Two of the most crucial moments in his life both involved the purchase of a drugstore.

The original idea was a community center. Henderson steered the Knapp Park committee in another direction, and talked to his wife that night about his idea.

In January of 2008, the group purchased the building. At auction, they bought the old tables, chairs, display cases, Coca-Cola glasses and other memorabilia from the original shop. When Henderson combined it with drugstore collectibles from his years in pharmacy, it was magic.

But first, it was work.

“When we got in there, there was a lot of hazardous waste,” Henderson said. “Old paint, herbicides, insecticides and DDT. We still have some DDT in the original containers.”

Before the watershed moment of the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, DDT had been sprayed directly on children as they played in swimming pools. The industry was too powerful at the time to stand for scientific critique of its products.

Like the Blounts, Carson was called a Communist.

That is part of the history of Americana that remains in the Old Time Soda Fountain, and the restorers believe it should not be forgotten.

Henderson stripped the wooden shelving of layers of pastel paint popular in the 1950s. The fountain had been coated in white. It was a four-year labor of love to scrape down to the original exterior.

“I’d take two or three doors home and work on them at night,” Henderson said.

As well, the baked enamel Rexall sign above the front door had been painted over, and the restoration team was not sure it could be reclaimed. Henderson felt it a small miracle they could save the old sign.

“It was up there when I was a kid.”

Nostalgia

“There is something about the atmosphere here,” Lorena said. “Because it is restful. You’re taking a holiday from 2019 and all your obligations. You’re sitting here in the past.”

The original malt machines sit above the front door.

Two years ago, an Allerton grad provided funding for air conditioning. Tim Ruark and his wife restored the floors. Another recent addition is a remote-controlled awning.

All along the business district, store owners once cranked their awnings open by wooden handle.

“When I come into the Old Time Soda Fountain, I step back in time, leave my stress and fast schedule,” Allerton grad Tanner Kelly said. “I just relax and enjoy.”

“It was just where we gathered,” Lorena said. “Chris Meyers was the pharmacist when we were kids in the 1950s. He was very strict. He wouldn’t let you slurp your malt—he’d holler at you. Everyone called him Chrissy. He always wore a white coat.

“The day after Chrissy and his wife Beulah were married, at noon, Chrissy put Beulah on a train to go to pharmacy school in Des Moines. They had a plan for this place.

“We had a group of elderly people that would come in the morning and play cribbage and drink coffee.”

Milford Lewis trained under Meyers.

“Hal Greenlee would come in with his Levi’s and white T-shirt and a comb he kept in the rolled-up sleeve,” Lorena said. “He’d stand looking in the mirror behind the counter and comb his hair, just so Chrissy in the far back would yell, ‘Out, out!’”

Lorena’s family was poor, and when new comic books came in the store, Meyers would give them the old copies.

“Which was an act of great kindness,” Lorena said.

In the cabinets are such strange concoctions as Calmitol and 666 Vaporizing Salve. On the wall is Meyers’ certificate in footology.

“We’re still trying to cure the same things,” Lorena said, laughing. “Some powerful drugs were dished out of there. People would buy sulfuric acid, arsenic for chicken mites. You had to sign for the poison on a register and your name. Chrissy signed it, and you signed it.”

After doing research on how to restore a soda fountain, they found the only outfit in the region that could do the work. Downs and Tim Kelly escorted it to Chicago.

It took a year to get the soda fountain back to Iowa, hence the delay in the store’s grand opening until the 2009 Allertonworld Fair.

“It was great,” Henderson said. “The store was packed. I would like to see it open maybe Thursday, Friday and Saturday during the day. There are a lot of people who’d like to come down, but they don’t want to drive an hour and a half at night and back.

“It could be a destination. I think it’s the best old time soda fountain around.”

Allerton’s Old Time Soda fountain is open June through October on Saturday nights, 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. For other days, rental fee is $50, which comes with four workers to dispense beverages.