Old-fashioned soda fountains can turn a drive through southeast Kansas into a delightfully tasteful tour.
By Claire Rogers
Do you remember Green Rivers, cherry limeades, and vanilla phosphates? If the names of these old-time drinks don’t ring familiar, you may be from a younger generation that missed out on such concoctions the first time around. These drinks and many others were the favorites of soda fountain denizens 50 years ago. If you were a teenager then, perhaps you even worked behind the counter, giving the soda spigot a jerk to finish off the drink with just the right amount of fizz.
The good news is that an icy phosphate, a creamy malt, or “” the king of decadence “” an ice cream soda may not be as far away as you think. As you travel throughout the small towns of the United States, ask the locals about such spots. You also may want to search the Internet for them as you plan your next trip.
One of the best areas to find a large concentration of authentic, old-fashioned soda shops is southeast Kansas. This is the hub of the state’s soda fountains with several shops ranging from lunch counters to sundries to full-service family-owned pharmacies. Ten fountains are within 40 miles of each other, all beckoning to travelers. You can zip and sip around the Sunflower State visiting a fountain a day for two weeks and still not see them all. Unfortunately, if you do enjoy them all, you may acquire a spare tire in the endeavor.
One of the best areas to embark on a Kansas soda fountain tour is along U.S. 59 between the Allegre Pharmacy in Ottawa (approximately 25 miles south of Lawrence) and Yesterday’s Café and Sofa Fountain, 22 miles south of there on the beautiful town square in Garnett.
More fountains can be found to the north, west, and south of this area. Northeast of Ottawa via quiet back roads (or Interstate 35, your choice) is the J&D Pharmacy in Wellsville. Stop for a “sno bowl,” a local favorite, at the nearby Gardner Pharmacy in Gardner, or try the treats at the Asher Pharmacy in Paola.
The Flint Hills area to the west has its share of fountain finds. Visit Alta Vista Sundries in Alta Vista for an egg cream. A beautifully restored fountain can be found at Aldrich Apothecary in Council Grove. From there, you can follow the Flint Hills Scenic Byway (State Route 177) south to Prairie Maid in the little burg of Cottonwood Falls. Along the way, Conestoga wagons grace this prairie once again, now as sculptural tributes to the Santa Fe Trail.
Though the competition is stiff, one of the best soda fountains can be found at Cardinal Drug in Chanute. It must be difficult these days for a proprietor to meld the bright, shiny décor of a modern pharmacy with the authentic old-time atmosphere of a soda fountain. Imagine the time and money that goes into restoring a pressed tin ceiling and maintaining ancient compressors for the soda spigots. That’s why you’ll appreciate this old-fashioned shop and its offerings even more. Jim, the owner and pharmacist, may even take some time to share a story or two about his years of searching for soda fountain antiques. Neighbors still congregate and share their memorabilia with him, which he displays at the popular fountain.
Kansas’ hospitality may tempt you to stretch your visit to a few weeks or more. However you do it, make it your goal to sample as many malts, floats, freezes, phosphates, sodas, and sundaes as possible. For the ultimate phosphate, dare to drink the “suicide” (a shot of every flavor of syrup), or make up your own zany creation.
Pretend you’re a kid again “” or bring your kids or grandkids “” to feel the cool sweat off the glass of “beer” (a vanilla phosphate) as you recall the day’s ride. Many regulars spice up soft drinks with exotic new syrups such as mango and passion fruit.
These fountains of youth have roots that go back to the early 1800s, but they didn’t become truly popular until the 1880s. By then, the health tonic of the earlier years had evolved to include flavored syrups and ice cream. The story of how anyone first thought to add ice cream to flavored soda water is vague, but one favorite rendition is that of a Philadelphia vendor who, in 1874, ran out of sweet cream for his blend of carbonated water, cream, and syrup, and used ice cream instead. His sales soared.
Soda fountains sprouted in the apothecary, because pharmacists did the mixing of drinks involving solutions of acid phosphate and citric acid. Soon they had to hire help just to work at the crowd-pleasing fountains. Soda jerks learned the touchy technique for jerking the soda spigot to dispense carbonated water at the proper temperature.
Sundaes reportedly were created around the Victorian era when the idea of a decadent fizzy drink of any sort on Sunday was frowned upon. A druggist in Evanston, Indiana, combined ice cream with syrup, but omitted the carbonated water. What was left became the sundae. The spelling of this tasty treat reportedly was changed to show respect for the Sabbath.
With addresses on streets such as First and Main, most authentic soda fountains remain central to small towns, attracting bicyclists and pedestrians young and old. Chatty locals still walk in just for an excuse to visit and enjoy a 25-cent phosphate. Kids, following age-old tradition, still stick their gum under the counter. The pharmacist knows everybody, except you, by name. As small-town social centers, soda fountains are a fun spot to connect with local residents. And besides enjoying ice cream sodas and Green Rivers, isn’t that what travel is all about? Some things never change.
Soda Fountains Of Southeast Kansas
Listed alphabetically by town, here are just some of the old-fashioned soda fountains found in the state. For more details about these and others, visit www.explorekansas.org/sodas.html.
- Alta Vista: Alta Vista Sundries, 603 Main.
- Burlington: Johnson Family Pharmacy, 312 Neosho St.
- Chanute: Cardinal Drug Store, 103 E. Main. Owner Jim Chappell has worked hard to rebuild a fountain from a collection of antiques, and the locals have really turned out in support of Jim’s dream.
- Chetopa: Riggs Drug Store, 426 Maple.
- Cottonwood Falls: Prairie Maid, 319 Broadway.
- Council Grove: Aldrich Apothecary, 115 W. Main. Nicely restored fountain.
- Erie: Richey’s Rexall Drug Store, 117 S. Main. Try a cherry ice. And be sure to look under the counter.
- Gardner: Gardner Pharmacy, 131 E. Main. Local kids started asking for syrup over crushed ice and calling it a “sno bowl.”
- Garnett: Yesterday’s Soda Fountain & Cafe, 112 E. Fifth Ave. Stick around for freshly baked cookies.
- Hamilton: Holmes Sundry, First and Main. This store has everything except the pharmacy. Save room for homemade pie.
- Howard: Batson’s Drug Store, 102 N. Wabash. More like a busy 1950s lunch counter. Closed on weekends.
- Humboldt: Spirit of Love, 804 Bridge. Still in its original location, the fountain now shares space with a Christian bookstore. Go for the mango smoothie.
- Independence: DeFever-Osborn Drug, 205 N. Penn. Take a look at the collection of old photos.
- Madison: Pope Drug, 15 N. Third St. If you like peppermint, you’ll love Candee’s special peppermint shake.
- Ottawa: Allegre Pharmacy, 304 S. Main; Antique Mall & Restaurant, 202 Walnut; Kramer Drug Store, 134 S. Main.
- Wellsville: J&D Family Pharmacy, 601 S. Main St.
- Yates Center: Steiner’s Sundries, 115 N. State St. Steiner’s is a walk through the past.
- Don’t miss lunch at Frannie’s in Yates Center (100 E. Rutledge), where the meal is $1 a plate (plus tax). Add another $1 for a piece of pie.
Today the ice cream soda, also known as a soda or an ice cream float, maintains a respected position on the menu, but the flavors and concoctions have evolved to reflect local favorites. In addition to the commonly known malts, shakes, and sundaes, you may encounter some peculiar regional highlights.
Following is a vocabulary helper for some of the mysterious mixes you’ll find.
Egg Cream: No eggs, no cream; go figure. This subtle drink contains chocolate syrup, milk, and soda water.
Green River: a phosphate with green lime-like sugar syrup. (The Green River brand of syrup is getting difficult to find.)
Phosphate: a tart fountain drink (not a soda) made of flavored syrup, carbonated water, and a dash of citric acid to balance the sweetness.
Limeade: freshly squeezed lime juice, simple syrup (unflavored sugar syrup), and carbonated water.
Cherry Limeade: limeade accompanied by a maraschino cherry.
Lime Freeze: fresh lime juice, lime sherbet, simple syrup, and carbonated water.
Black and White Sundae: vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate syrup and chocolate ice cream covered with marshmallow fluff. Topped with whipped cream and a cherry.
Black Cow: Root beer, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate syrup.
Pink Elephant: Lemon-lime syrup with strawberry ice cream.
Suicide; Idiot’s Delight; or Don’t Care: a phosphate with a squirt of each flavor.
Pine Float: a toothpick in water. For those on a diet or a tight budget.