Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: October 1994 Volume 32 Number 4, Pages 131–138

Growing Up at the Berwyn Drug Store

Merle Walker Lee and Mildred Walker Jones

(edited by Barbara Fry and Peggy Egertson, from an interview conducted on June 3, 1994)

Page 131

Both our father, Frank Walker, and our mother, Agnes J. Rynd Walker, were pharmacists. (They both came here from Pittsburgh, and graduated from the College of Pharmacy at the University of Pittsburgh, Father in 1902 and Mother in 1905. Mother was the only woman in a class of 100.)

After graduation Father at first went into the drug store business with his brother, in New Kensington, Pa. Two years later he was hired by a drug store in Philadelphia. While he was working there a salesman came in one day and told him that the Aiken Drug Store in Berwyn was looking for help.

[The Aiken Drug Store was on the southwest corner of Lancaster and Knox avenues in Berwyn, and in 1905 was operated by Clara [Alexander] Aiken, the wife of Dr. James Aiken, a physician in the village. Dr. James Aiken was a pharmacist as well as a physician; he had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1868. Clara Alexander had been a teacher at the Presbyterian School in the Great Valley before she married James Aiken. In the years that followed, she also became a pharmacist, as well as the mother of two children, Thomas, born in 1880, and Daisy, born in 1889. The Aikens had built their then-current drug store in 1889, but Dr. Aiken had started his pharmacy in Berwyn about twenty years before that. The Aiken Drug Store was a handsome, three-story building.

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The sales room, measuring 25' by 40', was in the front. In addition to drugs and patent medicines, the Aikens carried a number of fancy articles, toilet articles, surgical appliances, perfume, stationery, confections and cigars, and had also put into operation a large soda fountain.]

Father wrote to Mother to tell her of this opportunity, and she was hired by Clara Aiken. She lived with the Aikens until she married Father in 1906, with Daisy Aiken a bridesmaid.

Mother and Father lived first on Walnut Avenue, and then on Berwyn Avenue. In 1910 they bought the drug store from the Aikens. The store was officially named The Berwyn Pharmacy, or the Berwyn Drug Store, but the people of the town always referred to it as "The Walker Drug Store".

Mother and Father moved into the drug store building, with their first two children, Frank Jr. and James. Wells was born there in 1911; Ruth, in 1912; and we, the Walker twins, were born in 1914.

The drug store was open from 8:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. seven days a week. Both Mother and Father worked all day in the store. Only on Christmas were they closed, but even then the townspeople knew that they could knock on "Doc" Walker's door if they needed help.

The townspeople came to Father for all kinds of services that a pharmacist could not perform today without threats of malpractice. He would cut out carbuncles. He would remove slivers or pieces of bronze from men working in the Non-Gran Bronze factory. He was often called upon to bandage large cuts. (The local people would call him "Doc", but he would always reply, "I am not a doctor.")

Our family had two live-in servants -- Hattie, the cook, who looked like a "Southern Mammy", and Jimmy Brown, who tended the fires and did the maintenance work on the building. Hattie loved us and was good to us; she would cook what we liked for us.

Jimmy kept the two furnaces going. (One heated the three rooms on the second floor used by the telephone company for the Berwyn exchange; the other heated the rest of the building.) The building was heated with coal, and in the basement there were usually piles of coal. The ashes were taken out the cellar door in the back of the building. The basement had a dirt floor.

In the early days, before Lancaster Avenue was improved in the 1930s, the drug store sat high on the street. Five steps led up to the door, wider steps at the bottom and a second set of narrower steps at the entrance to the store. On the east on the Knox Avenue side were three steps that went into the ice cream parlor. Mother kept a room where you could sit down and have your ice cream when you came in with friends.

Along the Knox Avenue side of the building a long hall led back to our parlor. On the west side of the building another hall led back to the dining room. Under the stairs to the second floor was still another hall that connected the parlor and the dining room.

Page 133

Invoice from 1910, the year the Walkers bought the Berwyn Pharmacy

Page 134

Off the dining room hall was a pantry that Mother had turned into a photographic laboratory; she took a course in photography and developed pictures for her customers.

In back of the dining room was the kitchen. The building also had a large back porch and a good-sized yard.

In the drug store in the front of the building, on the east side was the prescription counter and Father's office. A door opened out to the hall that led to the parlor. The outside door to Knox Avenue opened into the same hall. This door was always left unlocked so that the telephone company employees could come and go to their rooms on the second floor. The telephone exchange operated twenty-four hours a day.

On the second floor Mother and Father had a large bedroom and sitting room. The sitting room was nicely furnished, but no one ever sat there. Our room was three steps up from Father and Mother's room.

A dumb waiter had at one time been in our parents' room, but it had been removed by the time we came along and Mother used the space for a closet. Perhaps the Aikens used the second-floor suite for a dining room. [In an interview with Kitty Wolf Gibb a few years ago, she remembered going down to the drug store to ride up and down on the dumb waiter.]

To keep her jewelry and valuables Mother had two holes, each about a foot square, cut in the floor boards of her bedroom.

Hattie had a room on the third floor, looking out on Lancaster Avenue. She would sit in the window and darn our socks.

The boys had two rooms, also on the third floor. Between them was the "tank" room, where Jimmy Brown slept. The tank which gave it its name was also now gone; Mother made that space into a closet. But we always called it the "tank" room, as in the earliest days of the building there had been a windmill in the back yard that powered water up to the tank, from which water was supplied to the building by gravity.

In Jim's room on the third floor, he and Clancy Woodward and Ramey Hughes used to cane chairs. Frank Jr. had a large, wonderful room in the front of the building on the third floor. (We inherited it when he moved out. We had two double beds and a large dresser there. We loved living right on Lancaster Avenue and looking out over the street and the railroad. We could have lived there forever!)

The bathroom was at the top of the third floor steps. It was the only bathroom in the building, and you had to climb thirty-five steps to get there!

A skylight was put into the ceiling of the third floor hall. A moveable cover slid back and forth over the opening; we moved it with a broom stick. When a rain came, someone would have to race up the thirty-five steps to the third floor to make sure it was covered.

Page 135

Over the years Father hired several women from town to help out part-time in the busier store hours. Lillian Burns was our regular, full-time, cashier. She lived on the highway with her brother Sam. She was also good to us; for a special treat she made us mice, out of raisins. But in spite of all the other adults in the building, it was Mother and Father alone who saw to our upbringing.

We girls also had to help out in the soda fountain and ice cream parlor when we got older. But Ruth was the only one of us who liked it!

Father believed that we twins should not be separated. We did everything together. We dressed alike, except that one of us would wear a pink ribbon and the other, a blue one. When we got to high school, Mr. Teamer, the principal, tried to separate us, but Father challenged him and we took the same classes so we were together anyway.

We ate our meals at a long table in the dining room. We almost never ate a meal when everyone was there, but often we had company at our meals. Father sat at the end of the dining room table so that he could see down the hall, into the drug store, and when someone would come into the store he would go in and wait on him or her. (A fellow we called "Old Abe" came and knocked on the door, it seems, every Christmas just as we were sitting down to a meal. Usually he had slipped on the ice and fallen, and he had cuts that he wanted Father to bandage.)

After dinner our homework was done at the long dining room table, the girls at one end, the boys at other places around the table. We all had friends who would come over to do homework with us; the little Wilson girl was usually there at the girls' end of the table. Her name was Ethel, but everyone called her Bill.

After we worked a while on our homework someone would go out to the soda fountain and bring back a pitcher of Coca Cola and perhaps some pretzels. The town doctors used to stop by, and they always came back to see us. The would say to Mother, "Dolly, you are going to kill those children with that kind of food!"

Mother always said, "Hard work never hurt anyone" and "Stay away from doctors". She lived to be 90! Hard work, though, did take its toll during the flu epidemic in World War I. Dr. Aiken wore down and never did recover, and Father's health started on a downward path at that time. Mother and Father always worked closely with the doctors, and never more so than during that flu epidemic. The doctors would come in in the evening with lists of people who needed help, and ask Mother to see what she could do for them after the store closed at 11:00 p.m.

Much of the business of Easttown Township was conducted in our parlor. Father was secretary-treasurer of the Board of Supervisors. We especially remember Ellis Thompson and Mr. Cornish, who was the road master. Harry Lewis, the first policeman in Easttown, often stopped in to see us.

The Trustees of Trinity Presbyterian Church also met in our parlor. Father was treasurer of that Board too.

Page 136

On Thursday evenings Mother would have a dance for her friends. The table and the chairs were pushed back to the wall, and Mother would sprinkle corn meal on the floor. Several couples would be invited; usually included would be the Wolfs, the McQuistons, and the Borquins. We would watch them from the stairs. We had a Victrola, and records provided the dance music.

On Friday nights our older brothers had their friends in. We all gathered together to sing. Frank Jr. was self-taught at the piano, but we thought that he was wonderful.

All the boys played football. The games were at three o'clock on Friday afternoons, and during the season we "ate" football every Friday night. Father went to the games with Mr. Lehman, the druggist in Devon, and at dinner that evening he went over with the boys what each of them had done wrong. He never missed a game -- and Mother never saw one. Every year Father was the toastmaster for the annual football banquet; he saved up football jokes all year. The banquets then were always stag affairs. But Father loved football!

Father's pet name for Mother was "Dolly". The only ones who called her Agnes were members of her family out in Pittsburgh and her sister, Amelia Hallman, who had moved here from Pittsburgh. When Grandmother Rynd came here to stay for six months of the year she lived with Aunt Amelia on Berwyn Avenue. She would walk down late in the day to play cards with us. She loved to play cards, except on Sundays. When she left to go back up onto Berwyn Avenue it was dark, so we would walk her home.

We girls all helped Mother with the wash on Mondays. Year 'round it would be hung on lines in the back yard before we went to school. We began the laundry by sorting it into piles all across the kitchen floor. Then it went into the Maytag wringer-washer, and then into two rinsing tubs, the first, sudsy; the second, more clear. Starch and blueing were used on several garments.

The ironing went on into the week. A woman from Phoenixville came in one day a week to do ironing. When mangle irons first came on the market Mother bought one from Howard Moore, and she could sit down to do the sheets. She even learned to iron shirts.

Becky Derrickson was the night operator for the Berwyn Telephone Exchange, on duty from 10:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m. She had a cot where she could rest, but she had to stay alert enough to answer every ring. Father used to take her a dish of ice cream when he closed the store. He would ask her if she would like some company, and we would stay with her while Mother drove Father down to Bryn Mawr for a sandwich. (Mother bought herself a Model T Ford and learned to drive, but Father never did drive.) While we sat with Becky we helped her sort her tickets.

Page 137

Christmas was always a glorious day for us. We were not allowed into the parlor until after breakfast, and we were then again detained until each of us had stood on the stairway to recite a piece or to sing a song. Then we would be allowed into the parlor, and would see the great, tall tree from Mr. Doyle, of Doyle's Nurseries, reaching up to the high ceiling. Elijah Fees was our Santa Claus, and he would pass out sleds, dolls, bicycles, and all of the other treasures of childhood.

The gypsies came every year in the spring. When we were small, the first time a gypsy entered the store Mother would rush out to the back yard and snatch us off from our red double swing. The gypsies stayed a week or two, until they were caught stealing. Once, after Mildred had married Frank Jones, her mother-in-law, Frank's mother, gave her a locket that the gypsies had given to her. The gypsies always went to Mrs. Jones's place on Walnut Avenue for water.

There was an incident with the gypsies after Merle had married Chuck Lee: one of the gypsies kept Mother busy warming water for a gypsy baby, and after she left it was found that Merle's budget money, thirty-five dollars in silver, and some coins being kept for a friend, were missing from the second floor.

Mother was always looking after some one. Miriam Jones, Frank's sister, for example, lived with us for a while when she was working in Philadelphia. On other occasions, both a relative and a non-relative, each with a son, were given rooms on the second floor when they were in need. They stayed in the rooms the telephone company had vacated.

In fact, Mother and Father, so used to helping and caring for other people, did not stop caring when the Depression came. Father would never say, "No money, no medicine." When you knew everyone in town, anyone in need of medicine would receive it, whether or not he could pay for it.

In about 1930 Mother and Father lost the drug store back to the Aikens. The boys continued to live at the drug store, however. Mother and Father had a room in the old Odd Fellows Hall on Waterloo Avenue, and we went to live with Frank Jones's sister Miriam, who was now married and living in Berwyn. We stayed there for two winters. Mother and Father then rented a place on the highway, in the middle of the bank block, and opened up a drug store again there. After two years they rented a home on Berwyn Avenue behind the bank, and we all moved back together again.

In her own home again, Mother continued to look after people. One fellow, "Old Pete", came as a hobo, looking for work. He would not take food without working for it. Mother put him up in our basement for years. He would disappar and go south when the weather became cold, but come back again one day in the spring. While he was here he did yard work and handyman's jobs for various townspeople. He stayed around so long that Mother took out an insurance policy on him.

"Sociable" is our word for the people of Berwyn during these years. Before television people used to do things together; now they retreat into their own homes. Even when radio first came around we used to get together to listen, taking turns using the ear phones. We had such a good time.

Page 138

In 1935 Merle married Charles Lee, whom she had known from high school. They had a son, Howard, and a daughter, Mildred.

In the following year Mildred married Frank Jones, after he returned from a position with duPont in South America. (We all had written to him while he was away and kept in touch with him.) They had two sons, Lloyd and Ronald.

Frank Walker Sr. died on August 17, 1946, and his widow, Agnes Rynd Walker, died on January 21, 1973.

Jim was the only one of the Walker children to become a pharmacist. He married Andirenne Lee, and moved to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, above Harrisburg. Only three of their children lived.

Ruth might have become a pharmacist too, had it not been for the Depression. She married Albert McQuiston, and they had three sons: Albert, Robert, and William.

Frank Jr. married Ruth Fitzsimmons. They had a daughter, Louise.

And Wells married Mary Gallagher. They had one daughter, Judith.

Both of us have always lived in Berwyn, but our children are scattered. We and our children all attended the Tredyffrin-Easttown public schools. At about the time our children graduated from Conestoga High School both of us went to work for the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, Mildred in 1956 and Merle in 1957. Merle was in charge of the central office at T-E Junior High School [now T-E Middle School], and Merle was the secretary and receptionist in Conestoga's guidance office. We both retired in 1979.

We still enjoy an active life in the Berwyn community. We are members of Trinity Presbyterian Church, where Mildred co-ordinates sewing more than 1000 items a year for the Needlework Guild and local hospitals, and Merle is a worker there. For many years we have also been a part of the Lydia Circle at Trinity.

In addition, we work with the seniors group, R.S.V.P., doing mailings for the Crossroads School, the Devereux School, the Easttown Library, and the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District. Mildred also works at the Trading Post, and Merle is active in the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club.

And looking back, the Berwyn Drug Store was a great place to grow up.


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