Ferguson Drug Remembered

The recent front-page article by publisher Amanda Mendez informed readers about the closing of the venerable Ferguson Drugstore in Willow Springs, after one hundred seventeen years in the community. For some former residents, who get their news of all-things Willow Springs from the Howell County News, it sparked a daisy chain of internet communications and recollections of Tom and Sadie Ruth Ferguson.
Bill Tandy (WSHS, 1964), a Springfield resident, who gets his newspaper several days before mine arrives in deepest Jefferson County, blasted an email to a dozen friends including me. Bill said, “I read in the paper Ferguson Drugstore is closing Feb 21. Makes me sad. I delivered newspapers printed from Springfield for them. I picked up the bundles at the Train Station. I remember sitting on my bike watching the train arrive. Fifty cents a day.” 
The email triggered my memories of delivering newspapers for Ferguson Drugs when I was in the seventh grade. As I recall, the town was divided into four paper routes assigned to different boys: Jerry Hollingshad (WSHS, 1962) and Jimmy Kilpatric, Bill Tandy, and Gary Evans (all WSHS, 1964). I subbed for Gary, which was fairly often. 
The boys delivered the newspapers on bicycles, but before they took off on their routes, they gathered to fold papers in the vacant lot on Main Street between Shorty’s B&B Café and the U.S. Post Office, which sat next to the Gambles hardware store on the corner of Main and Center Street. 
They folded the papers into hand-sized squares and stashed them in oversized handlebar baskets so they could throw them onto the yards and porches of customers along their routes. If a customer was inadvertently skipped or the newspaper ended up in the shrubbery, Sadie Ruth would hear about it and warn the boys. She was an admirable figure in town, and no paperboy wanted to fail her expectations. Plus, plenty of boys stood ready to snap up an open route. 
Hollingshad’s route, later handled by Mike Warning, was the shortest and most envied route. Gary, the smallest boy of the group, had the longest route. It stretched over the viaduct, up Harris Street and covered much of the southeast quadrant of the town as far as Pine Street, where I remember delivering papers to Willow Springs Chevrolet dealer, Jesse James. As a customer, he stands out in my memory.
A kindly man, but Mr. James had a peculiar manner of smoking a pipe. Instead of using pipe tobacco, he stuffed a rope-like plug of Kentucky Twist chewing tobacco in his pipe and lit it. Grandson Mark James (WSHS, 1974) confirmed the brand for me, and said, “He’d smoke it in his pipe and/or rip off a chunk to chew. And he’d leave it lying on the dashboard of his pickup in the sun where that thing would get hard as a brick bat.”
After receiving his brother’s email, John Tandy (WSHS, 1960) responded, “Lots of memories at that store. I used to sweep out the drugstore and rearrange shelves every day for quite a while. Made a lot of friends there. Tom and Sadie were super people and loved the community as much as we loved them.”
Another email recipient, Mark James, said, “Really sorry to hear this. I bought a Bears T-shirt in there a couple of months ago, and they had customers coming and going. That will only leave the one pharmacy . . . another empty building downtown.” I bought a Willow Bears T-shirt at Ferguson Drugs last Memorial Weekend and can concur with Mark’s observations.
I reached out to Beverly Hill Gray, a native daughter of Willow Springs—Beverly says she was born in Doctor Perkins’s office that was located on Main across from the present Howell County News office. A member of the WSHS class of 1970, until the State Highway Commission transferred her father before her junior year, Beverly told me, “I have been thinking about this a lot since getting Bill's email. The closing really makes me sad. I have fond memories of that store and Tom and Sadie Ruth.” 
She recalls, “I could go in and buy a single coke in a glass bottle, and that's the only way to drink them. I would always ask how long they had been in the cooler as I wanted them to be as cold as possible.” 
Sadie Ruth’s limeade, made with fresh limes and simple syrup, is a top memory for me. After baseball practice in the summer, nothing quenched a thirst like her homemade limeade. Since those halcyon days, I’ve never had lemonade or limeade that had such a perfect balance of sweet and sour. 
Beverly added, “Every time I was in there, “Sambo” Hinds was loading empty coke bottles or unloading new deliveries.” Referring to a back alcove next to the area pharmacist Tom Ferguson filled prescriptions, she says, “There were a few small tables and chairs that really restricted their retail space. It made Sambo's job a little harder as he couldn't maneuver around them well enough to stock the shelves quickly, and he was not above showing his displeasure for anyone who stayed longer than he thought they should have.” 
Older Willow folks will recall that Sam (Billy Joe Hinds) was a ward of Tom and Sadie Ruth, which is another testament to their goodness as people, beyond their longtime service to the community. Sam had Down syndrome, and but for Sadie Ruth stepping in, he most likely would have been institutionalized in those less-enlightened days. A reflection on Tom and Sadie Ruth would be remis without mentioning their fostering Sam. But that’s another story.
Sam’s relationship with the community in that era was such that his nickname was not a disparaging term. Tom and Sadie provided a home for him, and he had a lunch tab at Shorty’s B&B Café, which Tom and Sadie covered, but in a sense the whole town adopted him, particularly the high school kids. Sam used to ride the WSHS players’ bus to all out-of-town games. He was even presented a coach’s jacket, with his name and assistant coach embroidered on it. 
In the 1950s and 60s, Willow Springs boasted two full-service drugstores, with pharmacists and fountain service. People’s Drugs, which over the years operated at two different locations across Main Street by pharmacist Frank Protiva, had a larger soda fountain counter and diner booths and was the frequent hangout for local “drugstore cowboys.” But for gifts such as perfume and more serious notions, shoppers went to Ferguson Drugs.
In some ways Fergusons was the flagship of Main Street, if for no other reason than its longevity under the same name and function. As such, it has touched more lives, with the possible exception of the Star Theater, than other once prominent storefronts that no longer exist—Pagett’s Hardware, Masoner’s Grocery, Wilbanks’s Grocery, the K&J Café, and Western Auto, to name a few. 
Beverly Gray captured the spirit of those times, with this observation. “It’s hard to believe that basically a two-block area of Main Street was our whole world . . . and yet it seemed so big at the time. Wouldn’t it be nice for just one day to go back to 1965 and walk down Main Street and go in every store to renew old friendships?” And Ferguson Drugs would be the place to start. 
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Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

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