Soda Fountain in West Virginia Appeals to Nostalgia, Memories

26 April 2023

In 2023, if you visit a pharmacy, you might be sick and in need of medicine. If you were to visit a pharmacy 100 years ago, you might go there to buy medicine. But you might also go there for a soda or tonic – drinks with carbonated water from a soda fountain. You might also even eat lunch while waiting for your medicine.

These businesses, called soda fountains, were widely popular in the first half of the 20th century. But over the last 70 years, most soda fountains have closed.

There are still a few soda fountains out there, however. One is in Kenova, West Virginia. It is called Griffith and Feil Drug. The business is 131 years old.

Customers dine at Griffith & Feil Drug on Thursday, March 30, 2023, in Kenova, W. Va. The pharmacy opened in 1892 with a soda fountain counter that was taken out in 1957 but reopened in 2004. (AP Photo/John Raby)
Customers dine at Griffith & Feil Drug on Thursday, March 30, 2023, in Kenova, W. Va. The pharmacy opened in 1892 with a soda fountain counter that was taken out in 1957 but reopened in 2004. (AP Photo/John Raby)

Ric Griffith is the owner of the soda fountain. He is keeping the tradition going. He explained that soda fountains were not just a place to eat lunch.

"It was a place where you had an experience. When you had a soda fountain, people would stay longer, they'd sit down, and they'd share stories," Griffith said.

Both Griffith and his daughter Heidi are pharmacists. Pharmacists are people who prepare and give out medicines in a store or hospital. Their pharmacy employees work in the back of the store, while the front is a restaurant and soda fountain. The restaurant offers daily lunch and dinner choices.

People go there not just for the food and drinks, but they also take in the retro surroundings. There is a jukebox that plays music, neon-pink signs, vintage chairs, a metal ceiling and black-and-white pictures.

Carbonated drinks became popular in the 1800s. Acid phosphate drinks were later developed. Pharmacists would mix acid phosphate into the drinks for those seeking treatments. This is why soda fountains were often found in pharmacies.

As soda fountain manufacturing improved, so did the recipes and flavors. Food choices were then added. As customers waited on their prescriptions, they were able to eat and have a soda.

Behind the soda fountain counters are soda "jerks" -- the people who prepare old-fashioned phosphate drinks. They are not called "jerks" because they are mean; the term "jerk" also describes the movement that is used to pull the device on the soda fountain machine that makes liquid come out.

Malli Jarrett and Nathaniel Fornash are the soda jerks at Griffith and Feil Drug.

"It's fun working at a place like this, watching all the customers come in, looking around, taking a step back in time and telling me about how a lot of them used to work here when they were younger," Jarrett said.

During the late 1950s, many small family-run pharmacies started changing their business practices. Soda fountains were replaced with shelves for food and home supplies. Government rules became stricter. And fast-food restaurants and large pharmacies became the norm.

Pharmacies with soda fountains could not keep up and many closed forever. A few stayed open as either ice cream places or gift stores. Some closed either the soda shop side or the pharmacy side of the business.

In the past five years, many of the country's oldest soda fountains, like The Highland Park Soda Fountain in Dallas, Texas, and The Central Drug Store in Bessemer City, North Carolina, shut down.

But in recent years, there has also been a return of soda fountains.

Ric Griffith does not have any memories of his father's original soda fountain. That is because it was removed in 1957, when Griffith was just 9 years old. In 2004, he put another soda fountain in his store.

After he reopened the soda fountain, he recalled a man and his granddaughter sitting in a booth. The man shared stories about his younger self many years earlier.

He would sit at the same booths after school and order a cherry Coke. Griffith recalls the look on the granddaughter's face as, "...wonderful... She'd never thought of her grandfather as ever having been young. He was always her grandfather."

Griffith is glad to offer a place for people to sit around the soda fountain and share stories, instead of just getting fast food.

"And so, when we preserve history, we're not just preserving artifacts," Griffith said. "We're preserving a style of living, a way of interacting. The soda fountain has blessed me in many ways."

I'm Faith Pirlo from Morgantown, West Virginia.

And I'm Anna Mateo from Weirton, West Virginia.

John Raby wrote this story for The Associated Press. Faith Pirlo adapted this story for Learning English.


Words in This Story

pharmacy – n. a store or part of a store in which drugs and medicines are prepared and sold

carbonated adj. bubbles created by dissolves carbon dioxide

soda fountainn. a small soft drink dispenser; a place where one can buy soft drinks and food

retroadj. clothes, furniture, music and pop culture from an earlier time that are in fashion again

jukebox n. a machine that plays music when money is put into it

acid phosphate n. neutral flavor mixture used to make drinks slightly acidic; adds bubbles and helps carbonation of drinks when mixed with soda water

recipe – n. a set of directions for making something, especially food

prescription n. a written message from a doctor that officially tells someone to use a medicine or therapy

customer n. one that buys a product or service

boothn. a small area that is enclosed in order to provide privacy for a person

preserve – v. to keep (something) in its original state or in good condition

interactingn. communication and reaction to the people you are involved with