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People & Events: The American Drugstore

Ronbinson's Drugstore in Dayton, TNIt began over cokes and phosphates in a drugstore in Dayton, Tennessee. A little scheme to boost the local economy exploded into the trial of the century. The defendant wasn't even guilty -- but nobody cared. After all, two of America's greatest orators were coming to town. And the whole world was watching.

The story of how the Scopes trial began -- as a publicity stunt in a small town drugstore -- has fascinated people for over 75 years. Part of the fascination is the drugstore itself -- a peculiarly American invention. Not only a purveyor of drugs and health-related items, the American drugstore was also a meeting spot, lunch place, and community social center. The first soda fountain patent was granted to Samuel Fahnestock in 1819. A soda fountain in Atlanta first served Coca-Cola to the public in May of 1886. In 1903 the front-service soda fountain revolutionized business, giving the public an insatiable taste for Cokes, milkshakes and phosphates -- delicious homemade concoctions of carbonated water and flavored syrups.

"There was a time when every town had an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with wispy metal chairs around glass-topped tables and shadowy booths where fellows took their girls," wrote J. Norman McKenzie in 1969. "Ceiling fans whirred overhead and as you entered you were met by sloping glass cases filled with candies and chocolates."

"Then there was the soda fountain with its marble top in front of a massive mirror, shiny spouts and gleaming metal work area where a prince in white jacket presided. No mere soda-jerk was he -- that defaming term had not yet been coined. He was, rather, a fellow of infinite skill, able to produce a milkshake with a few deft moves with large containers and a mixing machine. His sorcery done, he poured with a flourish, usually at arm's length from a great height. Then he set the frosty treasure before his customer as one might proffer a cup of ambrosia to a king."

Popular legend has it that actress Lana Turner was discovered sitting on a fountain stool at Schwab's Drugstore in Hollywood. In hundreds of Hollywood films of the 50s and 60s, the drugstore became the all-purpose teenage hangout -- a place to fall in love, to gossip, to plot and scheme over milkshakes.

It was at Robinson's drugstore in Dayton, Tennessee where, in 1925, a group of town boosters hatched one of the most famous schemes in history, taking up an ACLU challenge to try Tennessee's anti-evolution law. The group believed a big trial would put their town on the map, and they conceived their plan sitting around one of Robinson's tables. According to historian Edward Larson, "Those were the days of Prohibition so the strongest thing they could drink was Coca-Cola!"

Ronbinson's Drugstore in Dayton, TNThe Scopes trial made the drugstore and its owner famous. In the midst of the trial a reporter wrote a story about F. E. Robinson under the headline "'Hustling Druggist' Becomes Oracle as Great and Small Gather to Discuss Progress of Scopes Case Over Sodas."

"Who in all the countryside does not know Robinson's, the social center of this county seat? Every afternoon, in normal times, the important men of the town drop in for a Coca-Cola and a cigarette. At the little tables they discuss religion, politics and things of local and national importance. It was at such a session that a few men decided to arrest John Thomas Scopes for a violation of the Tennessee anti-evolution law."

"Nowadays people swarm around Robinson's, as they do around certain hotels in national convention times. The first place any stranger seeks is Robinson's. There he finds all the town celebrities, besides lawyers, reporters, town belles and everybody else. Every once in a while Mr. Robinson, friend of all, says, 'Come on, boys, one on the house!"

Reporter H. L. Mencken had his own inimitable opinion of the town and its famous drugstore. "It would be hard to imagine a more moral town than Dayton. ...There is no gambling. There is no place to dance. The relatively wicked, when they would indulge themselves, go to Robinson's drug store and debate theology."

Times change. The American drugstore has become a series of national chains, selling everything but phosphates. Even Dayton no longer has an old-fashioned soda fountain. Robinson's is gone, marked by a plaque just a few blocks from the courthouse where the Scopes trial took place.

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