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A dose of old-time charm

Owners have preserved pharmacy’s past

John and Marilyn Ringold have spent decades preserving and celebrating the history of their old-fashioned drugstore in Howard Lake. Instead of modernizing the almost-century-old store, the pharmacist and his wife have retained and displayed some of its old-time charm – from shelves lined with antique medicine bottles to a vintage soda fountain where they still make mud ball sundaes. Now after 35 years, the Ringolds are thinking about retirement and hoping to find another pharmacist who wants to own a small business so the tradition will continue rather than die out. The Howard Lake Drug Company has operated continuously since it was founded in 1917 in the yellow-glazed-brick Realty Building along what has become busy U.S. Highway 12 in the southern Wright County town of about 2,000 people. Wesley A. Scheer and Richard E. Bushey established the drugstore 96 years ago in space that had housed The Cash Store. It sold a variety of merchandise from about 1905, when the building is believed to have been constructed, to 1917. They sold the pharmacy to Bob and Ruth Rekedal in 1948, and the Rekedals sold it and the building in 1978 to the Ringolds, who have now owned the drugstore longer than any of the others. While the proprietors proudly show off the store’s past, one aspect of their operation is decidedly not antique, Marilyn said. That’s the computer system, which must be up to date to handle prescriptions with all the complex information about insurance, copays and medication history. “So we’re really a 21st century pharmacy with a corner drug store atmosphere,” she said. It happened that way, John explained, because as the new owners’ business improved, they had to decide whether to remodel or keep the old features. They chose “to retain what we had instead of, at that juncture, going completely modern.” Since most other pharmacies have modernized, “this is unique,” he said. “I think that’s just in our blood,” Marilyn said of the decision to preserve the old rather than discard it. “We like it, and we had so much of that history that was left when we bought it.” Now many shops are trying to recreate that nostalgia, she said. “We have what a lot of people have strived to get.” One of the first things newcomers to the store notice is the collection of hundreds of bottles and other containers of old medicines that line shelves high up on the store’s towering walls. On one wall, they sit below a decorative tin ceiling and above oak and glass display cases and shelving that date back to the days of The Cash Store a century and more ago. A large sign that spells out The Cash Store in gold letters on a green background also adorns the wall. It originally hung outside over the store’s entrance and was rescued in pieces from the basement. Two large photos nearby show what the store looked like inside and out. The Ringolds and staff members notice first-time customers because they’re usually craning their necks to get a look, Marilyn laughed, and they give them a brief tour. Townspeople are used to seeing the old items, but “people who visit the town and don’t live here find it very fascinating.” Most of the old medications were found in the back room or basement, but some were brought in by customers who requested they be added to the display. “It’s kind of a continuous little project,” she said. Many of them are compounding products, powders and liquids that pharmacists mixed together to make up a doctor’s prescription. Now most drugs come already made up. Some are animal medicines, John said, since there used to be a lot of dairy farms in the area and pharmacies did bulk compounding for farmers and veterinarians. “We have every prescription from the day the store began,” John boasted, estimating they number at least 400,000. Paging through the 1931 prescription book, he found one that cost only 75 cents and another for 50 cents. “Here’s one for a quarter,” he said, pointing out some modern prescriptions cost thousands of dollars and are covered by insurance. Another treasure that greets customers when they enter the drugstore from Sixth Street, also known as Highway 12, is an old-time penny scale that still works. The machine came with the store 35 years ago, probably dates back to the pharmacy’s beginnings or earlier, Marilyn said, and still weighs pretty accurately for only a cent. Once a standard feature in drugstores, soda fountains have become almost extinct. But the Howard Lake Drug Company still uses its soda fountain to make malts, shakes, floats and traditional mud ball sundaes. “The original fountain was allegedly quite beautiful,” she said, and a 1925 newspaper story quoted in the Howard Lake History Book in 2008 described it as “an exceedingly classy piece of furniture” with a green marble base, white marble top and German silver fittings. The fountain was remodeled in the late ’40s and again in 1995 when the Ringolds moved it to a cozier place in the store. It’s a gathering place for morning and afternoon coffee, Marilyn said, and a popular forum for candidates to meet voters at election time. The mud ball sundae, which may date back to the original soda fountain, consists of a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and Spanish peanuts. “I have no idea how that got its name,” she said, suggesting it may be because the chocolate looked like a mud ball. An old wind-up clock hangs high above the soda fountain and still keeps time. “We found that in the basement too,” Marilyn said. She believes it was once located in a bank next door and was used to electronically set a sidewalk clock in front of the bank. And customers entering the store from the parking lot behind it can get a look at the freight elevator, a spring and pulley device that’s powered by a tug on a rope. Years ago, the store would receive large shipments by train and use the elevator to store them in the basement, John said. Now it’s used infrequently. “It’s amazing the stuff we have,” Marilyn said. “You haven’t even seen the basement.” Before the drugstore came along, The Cash Store occupied the east side of the Realty Building’s main floor and sold dry goods, like women’s hosiery, slips and hats, men’s shirts and gifts, she said. “It was the go-to place probably at the time.” The German American Bank operated out of the west side of the main floor until it closed in 1931 during the Great Depression, according to the Howard Lake History Book. The vault is still intact, Marilyn said, and a beauty shop occupies part of the old bank space. Years ago, the second floor housed the Howard Lake Telephone Company along with the offices of a doctor, dentist, lawyer and public accountant, she said, but that space has been remodeled into six apartments. John grew up in St. Paul where three of his uncles were pharmacists and owned the Guertin drug stores, one of which is still open. Their uncle was a pharmacist too, he said. He started working for them, mopping floors and doing other chores, and “I realized I liked the job.” He became a licensed pharmacist in 1969 after graduating from the University of Minnesota. Marilyn hails from Roseville, and the two met in 1962 at Peavy Lake near Onamia where their parents owned summer cabins. She noticed him painting a fence and wanting to meet him, offered to help. “I chased him till he caught me,” she laughed, and they married in 1966. The Ringolds were looking for their own business within a 50-mile radius of the Twin Cities in 1978 and heard that the Howard Lake pharmacy might be available, John said. So he walked into the store one day and boldly asked Bob Rekedal if he wanted to sell. Rekedal was blown over by his brashness but at his wife’s urging, accepted the offer. Since they took over in August that year, John has filled the prescriptions while Marilyn has done the behind-the-scenes work, like figuring the payroll and paying the bills. And 35 years later, not a day has seemed like work, he said. “It was something that I wanted to do and I was young.” John turned 70 in January, Marilyn is 67, and they’re looking toward retirement in the not-too-distant future. The Ringolds acknowledge that small, independent drugstores like theirs are a vanishing breed being bought out by big-box store. But they’re hopeful they won’t be the last owners of the Howard Lake Drug Company. “So that’s even more of a reason to keep it the way it is,” she said. “I think people come in and they love it; they like that personal attention.” They plan to search for another pharmacist who likes the idea of having his or her own store and wants to become the fourth proprietor. “I would really like to find somebody that will enjoy this and continue the business,” John said. “Hopefully there will be somebody.”

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