|By Cindy LadageGirard, Ill.— Along iconic Route 66 visitors from all over the world visit Doc’s Soda Fountain and Pharmacy Museum. Perhaps it is because of the museum’s location on Route 66 that travelers find themselves stopping, but the history behind this building and former drug store long predates the Mother Road.
Located in the central Illinois heartland, back in 1884, Lewis C. Deck, and B. F. Clark bought the store and opened a pharmacy. A few short years later, L.C. Deck became the sole owner. The store became known as “The White Drug Store” because it was the only building on the square painted white from top to bottom.
The store passed from one generation of Decks to another. Lewis W. and his wife Naomi ran the store until the third generation, Robert “Bob” and Wyman “Bill” Deck took over in 1960. Bob Deck became a pharmacist and together the two sons ran the store keeping the beautiful old-fashioned soda fountain, which is still a huge draw, intact along with the hardwood floor, cool shelving, and showcases.
Bob and Bill decided to retire in 2001 ending the 117 year legacy of Decks operating a store in downtown Girard. In 2007, Bob and Renae Ernst, owners of the Furniture Doctor, an antique restoration business purchased the drug store. They titled their new venture Doc’s Soda Fountain: opening the old fashioned fountain once again. The Ernst’s also brought a wonderful new addition, they showcased the Deck’s amazing Pharmacy collection that was before hidden from the public and is now on display.
“Bob and Bill Deck were always good friends,” Bob said explaining how they ended up with the former Decks Drug store. After going through a few previous owners, the building was starting to be in bad shape and when the Bob and Renae had a chance to buy the building along with the adjacent building that the Decks had used as an antique store, they purchased it. “By the time we bought it, we remodeled it and Bob and Bill let us put in the pharmacy museum. We bought it in 2007.”
Before Bob and Renae ever added Doc’s Soda fountain and the Pharmacy Museum, they opened the Furniture Doctor. “We got married May of 1984,” Bob said, “then we started the Furniture Doctor in May of 1985. It was to be a side job to bring in extra money. I was a minister of the Virden Church of Christ.”
Bob said restoring antiques and working with his hands came naturally to him. “Dad was a school teacher. He remodeled houses in the summer so I got into it at a young age.”
“He had to learn the business, he also builds custom cabinets too,” Renae added. Over time things have changed and Bob has learned new techniques and the different finishes needed for different pieces and what is durable and what will last.
Renae who was a Biology and Chemistry major from Blackburn had no intention of going into the upholstery and drapery business. “I was going to be a med tech.”
However, when someone would want something upholstered it fell to her. “I grew up sewing in 4H,” and it went from there.
Then she got into blinds, shades and shutters not knowing one day her work would show up in such illustrious places as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum! “I got certified as a window treatment consultant and alternative window consultant.”
Finding a gem like Doc’s soda fountain and the pharmacy fit perfectly into Bob and Renae’s interest in antiques and collectibles, and since Bob was already friends with Bill Deck, transitioning the location into a museum only made sense.
There are so many neat things in the museum from mortar and pestle sets to a cabinet of Angel Dainty dyes with original packets. Medicines are still in original containers and packaging displays. The Deck’s desk is original to the family and family photos are dotted through the museum. Ledgers showing the sales from the day dating back to 1897 show the business that was transacted. Perfume, nail sets, shaving kits and so much more make this museum a place frozen in time. Perhaps best of all is the March 1894 calendar that is original from the Deck family.
Besides the Pharmacy museum, there is an amazing array of antiques and collectibles to peruse at Doc’s Soda Fountain. One rare item that Bob pointed out is a cigar lighter. “I don’t know what year it dates back to. It was part of the pharmacy museum, most likely from Deck’s drug store.”
Along with the lighter is a neat collection of pipes, tobacco, a matchbox dispenser, and big collection of cigarettes and cigars!
The soda fountain is quite a draw with its lovely marble top. “They bought the soda fountain for $3,000 in 1929,” Bob added. In front of the fountain was a little café table with small chairs that Bob said he has a photo of the Deck brothers sitting in as children.
Behind the fountain are the original wood cabinets that are eye catching with the original syrup dispensers on top.
The Ernst’s have been adding to the décor. Coca-Cola is a big part of the past and the expansion. An old Coke cooler in front of the fountain Bob turned into a salad bar. “I drug that out of a barn in Modesto and made it into a salad bar, and another cooler I turned it into a bench, it is a photo op place.”
Bob said that at one time Coca-Cola used to send decorators to come and display the Coca-Cola advertising memorabilia in the drug stores. There are a few very old pieces that he is sure were original to Deck’s Drug store like two women’s faces that sit side by side with a Coca-Cola sign between them. There are lots of other cool Coca-Cola collectibles in the diner as well and one special piece is the timeline ad in the front of the diner depicting from 1886 to 1951.
Located one block off of Route 66, visitors come from all over the world to see the store and Pharmacy Museum. There is a huge map on the wall showing where visitors come from that is so full in some of the European countries like France and Germany that you can’t see the towns. Of course people from all over the United States come for the Route 66 experience and Renae added that lately people from China and New Zealand are the newest visitors. “Chinese tourism is opening up,” Bob said.
Bob laughed when he told a story of a group of Germans that came and ordered root beer. “They didn’t realize it wasn’t beer. They don’t have sassafras trees in Germany!”
A group of Japanese tourists were getting the “American Experience” traveling by Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Like these, many visitors come in groups. “Every year we have a motorcycle group come here,” Bob said.
Another group drives Mustangs and travel from California to Chicago and then back again with the originator coming to the states from New Zealand to direct the travel.
“There are fewer and fewer mom and pop shops. The 20-30 year olds are almost scared to eat here. They didn’t go to mom and pop places growing up. We never planned to open a restaurant, but we use it to keep the museum open.”
Married now for 35 years, Bob and Renae enjoy meeting people and the stories that have evolved over the years from the visitors they have had. “We bake our own bread and still hand make sodas, it is worth the drive,” Renae said. With the furniture doctor shop, Doc’s Soda Shop and the museum, this makes the Girard Square a destination.
Renae added almost every day they meet someone from a foreign country, sometimes they can converse and sometimes not, but Route 66 and the memorabilia spans all languages! Like Bob said, “History connects people.”
Located at 133 N. 2nd Street in Girard they are on the Girard Square. For more information, call (217) 627-2311 or visit www.facebook.com/DocsSodaFountain/.