“The confidence it keeps”
By Ryan Jones
Before social media and coffee shops, the news of the day traveled via drug stores. As gathering place, rest stop, and convenience store combined, drug store soda fountains were neighborhood fixtures, thriving on offers of five cent ice cream, house-mixed soda, and made-to-order small plates.
Davidson County’s collective memory contains several notable establishments scattered throughout Lexington, Thomasville, and Denton. Some are still serving up sandwiches and sodas today, blending past and present, old and new.
Lexington’s most enduring institution is Lexington Drug, which the Welborn family began running almost 120 years ago. After the original building burned in 1905, William Welborn reopened the business uptown near the Old Davidson County Courthouse, where it remained for the next 80 years. By the early 60s, the business had grown into a second location and Lexington Drug Store No. 2 opened where the current and only pharmacy carrying the name still operates today.
The local favorite has managed to ride the tide of big-box buyouts and closings over the years, outlasting stores like Mann’s Drug and People’s Drug. Both had locations along Main Street and also featured soda fountains that drew regular customers seeking good conversation and novelty snacks.
Mark Motlow, who now owns and operates Lexington Drug with his wife, Connie Motlow, understands the lasting appeal of the soda fountain and has no plans to remove the counter there any time soon. Though he has had to make equipment updates to meet code standards, the layout of the store has remained largely unchanged over the last 50-plus years.
“We’ll keep the soda fountain as long as we can. When we paid off the building in 2003 (after purchasing it in 1993) we had to bring it up to code and get rid of some of the older fixtures that gave it that nostalgia, but we still have the main fixture that’s been there since 1962,” said Mark Motlow. “There are three sinks and compartments to hold syrups for the sundaes, milkshakes, and the sugar and water for the soda.”
Beyond milkshakes, sundaes and sodas, the simple menu features pimento cheese and chicken salad sandwiches – made with Conrad and Hinkle products, of course – and house-made egg salad sandwiches. Those in the know always grab up the egg salad before Wednesday because that’s about how long the good stuff sticks around. The store is also famous for hand-squeezed orange and limeades that many longtime locals find impossible to unravel from childhood memories.
The Motlows purchased Lexington Drug from the Welborn family when John Welborn was ready to retire from his role as pharmacist. “Connie had already worked for Mr. Welborn for probably eight years. At the time she was his only pharmacist and he approached us to ask if we wanted to take over and make it an easy transition. It was because all the customers already knew Connie,” said Mark Motlow.
That kind of continuity is important for a place like Lexington Drug, Motlow explained. “We’ve had probably three generations that I know of — people bringing their kids in who used to come in when they were kids to get an orangeade after school. The fact that you can sit down at the counter and see people you know, it’s a nostalgic thing. We have people that come in and sit for hours. All walks of life, all ages.”
“I and many others would walk there after getting out of school at Cecil School in the afternoons. I loved the cherry smashes, limeades and orangeades. The staff was so nice,” said Lexington resident, Helen Fitzgerald. “It was just a neat place for 5th and 6th graders to safely walk and hang out after school. We could just chat and relax, see other friends.”
Fitzgerald also enjoyed spending her pocket money on the small items Lexington Drug carried in addition to pharmaceuticals. “As a young girl with a limited budget, I could do most of my Christmas shopping there. They had neat jewelry — used to carry collectible Boyds Bears, perfumes, candy, books. Most of the same things they carry now.”
Jeni Walden Lawson remembers her grandmother, Vera Walden, taking her to Lexington Drug for ice cream. “She never drank sodas, but would always treat herself to a Dr. Pepper. She said it reminded her of when she was a young girl. She would go there with friends.”
Besides being places of communion, drug stores and their soda fountains in particular also sometimes served a utilitarian purpose.
“The drug stores were kind of like an oasis between stops,” said Scott Gibson, noting that normal household shopping today looks much different than the way it did during the heyday of the soda fountain. “The shops uptown were rather exclusive. An average shopping day might take you from one end of town to the other simply to find the variety of goods sought. The drug store was practically designed to get you back into shape to continue on.”
The soda counter was also just a convenient place to pass the time while waiting for a prescription to be filled, said Tony Cranford, whose optometry practice is located on the corner of South Main and Peacock Avenue where Denton Drug operated for several decades. Growing up, he remembers visiting the store where he now welcomes patients. Back then it also featured an upper level with a doctor’s office and living quarters, he said.
“I remember it as a child. I guess I remember the soda fountain better than anything. It had a high ceiling and a fairly ornate tin mosaic in the ceiling with two large fans,” said Cranford, who also worked during his high school years behind the soda counter at a Mann’s Drug location in Asheboro, as did his brother, Delbert (Del) Cranford, the current co-owner of the Denton Drug store, now located on Highway 109.
Del Cranford started working at Denton Drug as a pharmacist in the early 80s for Harold Tanner and Bob Barrett, and by the end of the decade had become the owner. Later, his daughter, Lora Griffin, became a pharmacist and partner in the business. The store was moved to its current location in 2002. Somewhere along the way dwindling revenue led the store to close its soda fountain, but Cranford remembers it fondly.
“It was a gathering, social type thing as well as a place to get a snack. We had a lot of the same people come in,” he said. It was like a community center. People would come in and shoot the bull and have a fountain coke.”
Those who have worked at soda fountains share much the same sentiment toward the experience as those who simply grew up visiting them. The day-to-day experience of greeting rotating regulars and fixing up familiar foods carries with it a certain brand of nostalgia for Davidson County natives like Joni Walser.
Walser, who worked at People’s Drug on the corner of First Avenue and South Main Street in the 70s, remembers the high soda fountain counter at the store as well-worn but rooted in its own history. Her mom and two aunts had also worked at the store, so she remembers feeling particularly driven to land a job there.
“I desperately wanted to work there. I loved the idea of following in their footsteps. I liked the legacy of it,” Walser said. “Also I was following in the footsteps of some older high school girls I admired and sort of modeled myself after.”
“People’s was a popular spot for downtown workers to come for their lunch hour and for afternoon regulars who came in for an orangeade or milkshake,” she said. “We served them hot lunches, sandwiches, and there was always banana pudding. When we ran out of oranges or lemons or pimento cheese, I’d grab a basket and walk across the square to Conrad and Hinkle for replenishments, chatting with people I knew as I passed them on the sidewalk. This felt quaint and small-town special to me even then. I was sort of living my nostalgia in the present. I never dreaded going in to work those Saturday mornings because the social aspect of it was such fun.”
Walser worked at People’s for about a year until she hopped over to Lexington Drug No. 2, “which felt quite modern by comparison, but with the same conviviality,” she said. “Thankfully its soda counter is still serving up those magical orangeades and the counter still wears the same red Formica top from the 70s.”
Both Kyle Ann Bowers and Connie Miller worked at Lexington Drug while they were students at Lexington Senior High School in the early 2000s. They share an appreciation for the personal, customer-centered business model of the soda fountain.
“I loved talking to the customers who came in regularly. Most of them cared deeply about the drug store and those who worked there. They didn’t mind talking and relaxing for a moment. The environment was very intimate and caring,” said Miller. “People like to come to a place that feels genuine and trustworthy. Customers like to feel appreciated, and they value genuine respect and kindness. No one is rude or impatient. The service and conversation is heartfelt and not forced.”
“The clientele is definitely broad. There are families who have been coming there for generations — kids who grew into teens, who grew into adults, and then parents — and started the cycle again. For me, having worked there for so long, it’s really neat to see children I made ice cream for who are now in college,” said Bowers. “I loved the feeling that I was part of history.”
Long before Miller and Bowers took their first shifts at Lexington Drug, Elizabeth Loftin was serving the people of Denton at the original Denton Drug store soda fountain. She eventually became a pharmacy technician and recently retired after 50 years with the establishment.
“We mixed our drinks. We made our own syrups with a gallon jug and five pounds of sugar and mixed it up. Ice cream was like five cents a scoop and a milkshake was a quarter,” remembers Loftin. “We had Coble Dairy products.”
Loftin now owns the machine that made orangeades, and though she rarely pulls it out, citing the difficult cleanup process, she loves having it as a memento.
“My favorite memory is just meeting different people and just being in touch with everybody. At one time I could say I knew just about everybody in town,” said Loftin. She remembers some of the quirky requests she would get from soda fountain customers. “We had a couple of elderly people – well, I wouldn’t call them elderly now because I’m older now than they were – that liked to have ammonia put in their coke. It was supposed to help with their headache,” she laughed.
Walser remembers similar orders. “People would order them for a headache or, I guess, a hangover. It was just coke with a squirt from the small bottle of ammonia that sat just within my reach. I can’t believe people drank this. I wonder if they still do.”
“It was fun when you could remember the one or two particular customers who preferred soda water in their orangeade or those that ordered a Newton (coke, milk, and vanilla syrup). Learning and perfecting those unique requests taught me so much about using good customer service skills,” said Miller. “I appreciate someone who is genuinely appreciative of hard work and good customer service.”
Good customer service is the root of lasting success according to both Del Cranford and Motlow. While Cranford has no plans to reinstall the beloved Denton Drug soda fountain – “I have a lot of people ask me about it but I doubt I ever would” – he knows the business has only survived for the last 100-plus years because of the community atmosphere garnered by those early years at the counter.
“We’re independent so we can make our own decisions. If somebody comes in and has a problem we can decide what to do and not have to contact somebody at corporate and have them wait,” said Cranford. “We try to meet needs and accommodate whatever they want within reason.”
“We get to spend a good amount of time with each customer, more so than the big box stores. That’s kind of our ace in the hole. The local people in the community need that one-on-one attention,” said Motlow, adding that the soda fountain helps keep the business afloat in a lot of ways because the relationship between pharmacies and insurance companies doesn’t allow for a large profit margin. “The Welborns in later years felt like it was a mistake when they took the fountain out of Lexington Drug No. 1. That was a big drawing card.”
Walser thinks she understands the ultimate appeal of the soda fountain, and perhaps why Lexington Drug has withstood the test of time and why folks still ask about Denton Drug and look back at their childhood experiences visiting other soda fountains with such delight.
“I guess folks like soda fountains for the same reason they like a coffee shop these days, or a bar — a place where everybody knows, or will soon know, your name. A place where you can find company about any time of day, a place to take a break and have a treat, to sit by yourself on a stool and listen or contribute to conversation,” she said “This was the real charm. The interpersonal interactions it fostered, the friendships and confidences it kept.”