Washington County

But today is different. Today, I'm at a small-town soda fountain. I rest my elbows on cold marble. I eat. A woman named Miss Penny hugs my neck.

The sun is setting in Washington County, Alabama. The gnats are out. You can hear crickets downtown. This place is a fleck of ketchup on the map.

It’s something else.

I’m at the Courthouse Drugstore. This is a real soda fountain. Marble counters. Knee-high barstools, vinyl cushions. I’m eating a sandwich that tastes exactly like shaking hands with the Risen Savior. I forget which decade I’m in.

Miss Penny sits beside me. She’s got gray hair. Feisty. She smokes a vaporizing cigarette that smells like butterscotch and Lysol.

“Sixty years ago,” Penny says. “Folks used’a come here to drink Ko-Cola floats, they’d watch people get off at the train depot. It was something else.”

Not much has changed here—except there’s no train anymore. People are rural. Some folks drive seventy-five miles to Mobile for groceries.

“After the drugstore shut down,” says Miss Penny. “Only place to get a milkshake was your own kitchen. It was something else.”

The Courthouse Drugstore reopened last November. The town threw a party. Washington County showed up to christen it.

For nearly four decades, the building sat vacant—complete with overgrown parking lot and plywood windows.

This restoration was no business venture. It was a resurrection.

“Chatom’s in my blood,” says Holly, who restored the drugstore. “My ancestors founded this town, least I can do is try to keep it going for my kids.”

So, she reopened the landmark. Chatom’s soda fountain is a one-of-a-kind, even for the Old South.

Out-of-town visitors have already been coming to see it. Not long ago, tourists from Germany stopped by to experience the authentic American tradition. They ate chicken salad. It was something else.

Tiffany keeps the place running. She says, “I make chicken salad the old-fashioned way. The other day I tore apart seventy-five pounds of chicken by hand. Worked so hard, I strained a muscle in my neck.”

In the short time I visit, the place is buzzing. In the parking lot: trucks with mud on tires. Economy cars, carrying families of four. Old men, young women. High schoolers.

People are here to spend an afternoon in an old-fashioned drugstore. The same room their ancestors once haunted.

They’re rubbing elbows with spirits who built this town out of the pines across the street. That’s something else.

It might not seem like much, but it’s everything. Because this world is a vicious place. Yesterday, I heard about a man who tied a dog to his bumper and dragged it to death. I read about a woman who suffocated her son with a pillow.

Gas prices climb. Hate sells for rock-bottom prices. Another day, another Walmart comes to town.

But today is different. Today, I’m at a small-town soda fountain. I rest my elbows on cold marble. I eat. A woman named Miss Penny hugs my neck.

“Next time you’re passing through,” Miss Penny says. “You’re welcome to stay with us. Got plenty’a room.”

Four others make the same offer before I even finish my sandwich.

Four.

It was something else.

34 comments

  1. Marilyn - April 23, 2017 8:45 am

    Loved this. Not only the restoration of an old landmark, but your comments….’It was something else’…..remind me of the nursing home where my husband just passed. There is a gentleman there who has been there 17 years and to anybody who will get close enough for him to grab your arm, he will tell of some things that has happened and will always end it with, ‘It’s a mess, I can tell you…beats all I ever seen.’……He runs out of people to whom to talk so he tells you the same stories because no one ever visits him……

    Reply
  2. Judy Miller - April 23, 2017 1:02 pm

    Reminds me of my hometown–population 672. The soda fountain was still there, and the old hardware store and small restaurant and beauty shop–until three years ago when, that side of main street burned to the ground. because some idiot kid that lived in one of the upstairs apartments, got mad when he was evicted and as he walked out, threw a lit cigarette in the waste basket.

    I cried for two days!

    Reply
  3. Bobbie - April 23, 2017 1:02 pm

    Thank you for starting my day off right.
    I wish I could tell you what a blessing your “gift” is…..well, I think I just did!

    Reply
  4. Jennifer Mary Lee - April 23, 2017 1:13 pm

    There is something special in places being remembered. I still think about my dime store that had a food counter. They made the best chocolate and cherry cokes. But the best thing was their double decker sandwiches. They were egg salad and lettuce, tuna salad and and tomato piled high with that extra slice of toast in the middle, all on the same sandwich. I made them for supper sometimes, to feed my own kids. I remember the girl’s smile serving, and sitting with my mom. She is long gone. It’s a reversal now. The kids are gone, busy with their lives. The ex, gone, busy with someone else. But I remember that girl’s smile. And I sometimes make that sandwich for supper still, Sean! Thank you!

    Reply
  5. Arlene - April 23, 2017 2:43 pm

    Your beautiful old soul brings joy and light to my older one. You make a difference. Don’t ever stop.

    Reply
  6. Sam Hunneman - April 23, 2017 2:44 pm

    Ha! And there you are, guitar and all, in pictures on FB. Your sandwich description knocked me out. Keep ’em coming.

    Reply
  7. Clint - April 23, 2017 2:57 pm

    Rise Agrarians. “The time has come.”.
    Great post. Gave me chills.

    Reply
  8. Clint - April 23, 2017 2:59 pm

    Rise Agrarians. “The time has come”. Great post. It gave me chills.

    Reply
  9. Clint - April 23, 2017 3:00 pm

    Sorry about the double post. Phone wouldn’t cooperate.

    Reply
  10. Floyd white - April 23, 2017 3:57 pm

    Brought me back to Atmore in the 50’s. triple dip cone for 15 cents. Escambia, Rexall, and Bristows drug stores. Great sandwiches, shakes, and my favorite was the cherry smash at Bristows.

    Reply
  11. Sara Shepherd - April 23, 2017 4:42 pm

    If only……if only we could go back to those days of soda fountains, drug stores where people knew your name, and when people truly cared about and for others.
    Love reading your blog every day since I found it.

    Reply
    • Bobby - April 29, 2017 5:39 pm

      That’s not just the best anwrse. It’s the bestest answer!

      Reply
  12. Kathleen - April 23, 2017 5:18 pm

    Story Brings back memories!

    Reply
  13. Nancy - April 23, 2017 5:32 pm

    Ko-cola. 🙂
    Your writing is something else.

    Reply
    • Eve - April 30, 2017 7:33 am

      Wishing the both of you a very happy anryaensvry–iou make such a foxy couple in your thrifted finds.So happy to finally see Jon in that jacket! You are very lucky, I've come across maybe two men in my life that have the patience and enthusiasm for vintage shopping.

      Reply
  14. Sue - April 24, 2017 1:46 am

    Took me right back to Otto Cherry’s drugstore in Mansfield, Arkansas, right off highway 78 in western Arkansas, 26 miles south of Ft Smith. I am there with my cousin Gayle drinking a cherry coke and waiting to see which guys from school might wander in to flirt with us. Iam smack dab in the middle 50s, and at the same time I’m in Your story in Chatom. THANKS for this little trip to my past. (YOU are something else).
    A big fan in Deer Park.

    Reply
  15. Donna McDowell - April 24, 2017 1:15 pm

    I grew up in Panama city FL. We had an old fashion drug store. It was air conditioned when few places were . The counter was marble and long. Jake was the owners name. He had gray hair, a sMike that warmed your heart. He kept everything spotless. He made everything himself. He had scoops of ice cream, shakes, sundays, hot dogs, fountain cokes…cherry cokes yummm. He made everyone feel like his family. He wore the white elongated hat and a white shirt and bow tie. He was the kindest face in my very tough young life. I went there a few years ago and of course it was closed but inside the large glass windows you could see the long marble counter still. I think of Jake and wonder if he knew how much that place meant to me…. his food was the best his shakes right from heaven. Where I’m sure he stands behind a long marble bar making shakes for my son….Donna McDowell

    Reply
  16. Kay Keel - April 24, 2017 3:33 pm

    I’m on the other side of the state, but I feel a road trip coming on!

    Reply
  17. Christy - April 24, 2017 9:48 pm

    Loved reading this! Chatom is my hometown and where all my family still live. I remember going to Courthouse Drug as a child and was so excited to see Holly take this project to heart. I got to make a visit to the newly reopened store at Thanksgiving and can’t wait to make it home during the summer so I can visit the soda fountain as well. Great read about a great place!

    Reply
  18. Carol - April 24, 2017 10:37 pm

    Sweet reflection of small town life… sadly,Gone With the Wind.

    Reply
  19. Annette - April 27, 2017 5:18 pm

    Your stories bless my day. Thank you

    Reply
  20. Kim - June 16, 2017 10:16 am

    You are a blessing!

    Reply
  21. Timothy - June 16, 2017 11:32 am

    During my reading of this I’m 12 years old at the Rexall; drinking a cherry phosphate; watching my 16 year old crush make simple syrup. My elbows are resting on the marble countertop. Thank you for these moments.

    Reply
  22. Nancy - June 16, 2017 11:41 am

    Grew up in small town Alabama, Dadeville, we had a drug store exactly like that ! Your writing is “right on”! I enjoy every picture you paint!

    Reply
  23. Deanna J - June 16, 2017 12:02 pm

    My sister used to work at the soda fountain in the drug store in Jackson, al. I hate they remodeled and removed it, it was a wonderful place to go, mama would drive to town to pick her up from work and we could go in and get something to eat! It truly was a wonderful time! Thanks for the memories!

    Reply
  24. Skip Davis - June 16, 2017 12:31 pm

    Sean
    I have spent the last 17 years traveling the south for work, your stories are true and consistent with what I have experienced . Thank you for sharing. I have also documented my time on the road and the people i have met.
    I started recording sounds a few years ago of the places I go. I would love to share a few with you.
    Skip

    Reply
  25. James Stephens - June 16, 2017 12:54 pm

    I’ll be passing thru Washington county taking my great grand daughter back to Fairhope this morning. I just might go a little out of my way Monday, when I head back to Meridian, and visit Holly for one of those ko-cola floats. Great story.

    Reply
  26. Janie Shouse - June 16, 2017 3:21 pm

    I grew up with an iconic drugstore in my hometown. Cherry Coke, root beer floats. Ice cream in a metal dish all served by Myrtle. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.

    Reply
  27. Celeste Sheppard - June 16, 2017 3:28 pm

    I love you Sean! The world spins on and we only hear bad things, your column helps keep me sane!

    Reply
  28. Ken Copeland - June 16, 2017 3:35 pm

    I was born and raised in Chatom, living in several houses. But the one with the best memories was the “Kimbrough House” which was 2 houses south of the Courthouse Drugs. I spent a lot of time there, even did my Christmas shopping there one year. I left Chatom, joined the Navy, saw the world, and ended up in the Pensacola area. But there’s a comfort in knowing Chatom, and a piece of my childhood, is close by.

    Reply
  29. Mary Hennis - June 16, 2017 7:23 pm

    I have lived in Chatom for 61 years. I love the town and the people. The Courthouse Drug with the Agees, was such a part of our life growing up. Chatom has a lot of good history. I bet you did not know that Aristotle Onasis got his divorce from first wife Christina at the Washington County Court House. Guess that is our claim to fame. Small towns are so great to raise kids and also for them to see what good country living is like. I always thought that city folk just don’t know what they are missing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    Reply
  30. Belinda Strickland - June 17, 2017 12:07 pm

    My great uncle, Lloyd Dickey, was the barber in Chatom. My grandmother was from Chatom and a lot of her family still resides in the area. As a child I always loved our adventures when one of my aunts or my daddy would take my non- driving grandparents on a trip ” up home”. Thank you for this sweet glimpse back to my roots. Haven’t been there in years. Might be time for some chicken salad…

    Reply
  31. Bett Norris - June 17, 2017 12:22 pm

    I grew up next door in Clarke County. This piece brings back fond memories for me.

    Reply
  32. Becca - June 21, 2017 4:00 am

    You should visit Byrd’s drugstore in Troy, AL and check out their lunch counter. Located on the square; it’s definately a local landmark.

    Reply

Leave a Reply