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Interview Group #1

More interviews with
Erwin Mill workers


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McDonald's Drugstore: Serving up Nostalgia in Old West Durham

    From the black and white photographs that adorn its walls and tell its story down to its old-time soda fountain at the front counter, McDonald's Drug Store on Durham's Ninth Street has a history as rich as the homemade milkshakes for which it is legendary. It's a history that was born some 83 years ago when Angus McDonald first opened the doors to the pharmacy on East Main Street. And it's a history that lives proudly today in owner John McDonald, Angus' son, who has devoted himself to managing the drugstore for the better part of his 76 years.

    John McDonald.

    For nine decades, McDonald's-nestled on the Ninth Street strip since 1916-has witnessed a metamorphosis of downtown Durham from its industrial beginnings when, John McDonald recalls, "cotton mills and tobacco factories were about all there was."

    The more the face and the composition of businesses around it changed, the more McDonald's remained the same; that, in fact, is the unwritten prescription for the pharmacy's endurance and appeal.

    "I just sort of figured that if this thing survived the Depression and two [world] wars, then I'd better keep it as it is," McDonald says, laughing warmly.

    But even McDonald knows that the pharmacy, and the nostalgia it elicits, are not forever-especially in a corporate world that favors profit over personality. And so, just as McDonald's has witnessed history and possesses a great deal of its own, it may very well soon become part of it.

    "It's the last of an era-this type of 1914 drugstore is going into the record books," McDonald says. "These stores are shrinking daily. This is about the last one."

    Growing up with the drugstore

    John McDonald was born in 1920 on Broad Street; he has, in the most literal sense, grown up with the drugstore.

    McDonald family homestead on Broad Street.

    After graduating high school in 1938, he worked in the Erwin Cotton Mill-now the site of Erwin Square Apartments-for a year and a half, earning $11.88 a week. It was the height of the Depression, a time when living and working conditions were bearable at best, and utterly destitute at worst.

    "People just couldn't make it," McDonald remembers. "Some people were actually not eating; there was just no work to be found."

    Those years of struggle, along with his father's compassion during them, left an indelible impression on the younger McDonald. To hear him recall his memories of the era in such vivid detail is to understand why the store means so much to him, why he is so proud that it bears his family name.

    "My father served the community in hard times during the Depression," McDonald explains. "I know he'd fill prescriptions when people just didn't have the money to pay. He felt an obligation and he fulfilled that. He was a service to the community in a time of need."

    And so when McDonald faced two career paths-milling cotton or mixing prescriptions with his father-his decision was little more than an afterthought.

    "I was not on fire to follow in the pharmacy, especially during the Depression," he says. "But I had been in and around the store all my life. After working at the mill, I decided pharmacy would probably be the better choice."

    His decision led him in 1939 to pharmacy school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the only one of its kind in the state at the time. But World War II would temporarily put his pharmaceutical plans on hold. McDonald volunteered for the American military effort and enrolled at the U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School in Chapel Hill, where he lived on the same hall with the youngest trainee of the lot-a fellow named George Bush, with whom he was friendly but "not buddy-buddy." (On the back wall of the pharmacy hangs a signed photograph, given by a mutual friend, of the former president, offering McDonald his best wishes.)

    Although McDonald never left the country or saw combat, he served as a flight instructor for the duration of the war. On the day he was released from active duty, the final day of 1945, he married his wife, Frances.

    "New Year's Eve, it's easy to remember that," McDonald chuckles.

    McDonald was glad to be home. The four years he spent in the Navy were the longest he would ever be away from the drugstore in his entire life.

    Entering the family tradition

    After his military service ended, McDonald returned home to finish pharmacy school and finally received his pharmacy license in 1949, 10 years after he first entered the school.

    "I've been at it ever since," he says modestly.

    Upon graduation, he joined his father in the drugstore, where the two worked side by side for 25 years until Angus' death in 1973 at age 88. In a fitting tribute, the pharmacy licenses of father-earned in 1905-and son hang together on the back wall. So too does a laminated sheet of old McDonald's prescription labels, as well as black-and-white photographs of a young Angus posing in front of the pharmacy during its fledgling years, when Durham's roads were still little more than dirt paths.

    John McDonald is never too far removed from the drugstore's history; indeed, the tradition is the lifeblood that continues to flow through the store today. Together, John and Frances McDonald have run the store every day for the past 24 years, since his father's death. It's a family business and, for Frances Sanford, a friend of the McDonalds for 25 years, the drugstore feels more like a family than a business.

    "They're just a lovely couple," she says. "It's just like walking into your own home."

    And for McDonald, it is home.

    "I enjoy the community and the contact with the people," he says. "I probably knew 90 percent of the customers, the families, and watched them grow up. Now we get a lot of people in just to look and reminisce."

    More than that, sizable crowds-by word of mouth-descend upon the drugstore topped by the beige-and-green-striped canopy to indulge in the homemade milkshakes that John and Frances serve up with ice cream, amiable conversation and smiles. Word of mouth even reached the Fodor's southern travel guide, which touts McDonald's as having "the best milkshakes in town." The secret, McDonald reveals, lies more in the careful preparation than in the ingredients themselves.

    "We do enjoy our reputation [for our milkshakes]," he says. "We do a first-class product. We do it the same way we've done it over the years; we don't cut corners." He pauses, then grins. "When you say McDonald's, people think of fast food milkshakes-we were McDonald's long before Ray Kroc cooked his first hamburger."

    But with each new day and each milkshake, the unwelcome yet unavoidable question seems to arise: How much longer will McDonald's pharmacy remain in business?

    Remaining 'close to the community'

    John McDonald doesn't much care to think about crossing that bridge, although he knows it awaits somewhere on the horizon. McDonald has two children (and five grandchildren), neither of whom plan to take over the store when he decides to hang up his pharmacist's jacket.

    "It's kind of a play-it-by-ear situation," he explains. "Frances and I enjoy working. We don't have any plans. The first thing you do when you reach a certain age is wake up and make sure you're still there-then you plan your day."

    John and Frances, 75, operate the pharmacy six days a week and continue to work the counter. Although they stock over-the-counter drugs, the prescription pharmacy portion in the rear of the drugstore has been closed since John underwent an operation last November.

    Sanford, who visits the store each day to lunch with Frances McDonald, has known McDonald's in Durham for as long as she can remember.

    "They can really make some milkshakes," Sanford says. "I don't think it would be a Ninth Street without that drugstore-it just wouldn't be right."

    Indeed, 83 years of history cannot simply disappear unnoticed.

    For now, John McDonald looks to the days ahead for the pharmacy, all the while appreciative of its deeply rooted history. And for McDonald to continue doing what has been essentially his life's work, well, he could want nothing more.

    "I've been close to this community all these years," he says. "Just to be on the street where I've been since I was a kid is enough."

    (source: The Chronicle. August 29, 1997)