ne of the many jobs I held as a boy growing up in Searcy in the 1930s was “soda jerk” at Headlee’s Drug Store located on the northeast corner of Spring and Market streets. My supervisor and mentor was Bascom Wallis, who ran the soda fountain and tobacco counter. We sold cigars, cigarettes, pipe tobacco, cigarette tobacco and papers, gum and candy.
Early in my career as a soda jerk a man came in and asked for some “bird dog” tobacco. I asked Bascom what that meant. He said, “Look at a package of Granger Rough Cut pipe tobacco.” Sure enough, there was a picture of a bird dog. I looked up “Granger” in the dictionary and found it to mean “gentleman farmer.” I supposed all gentlemen farmers had shotguns and hunting dogs and smoked pipes.
In the soda fountain we offered milk shakes, malted milk, fountain Coca Cola, ice cream sodas in all flavors, phosphates, limeades and a big favorite – Bromo Seltzer that was mixed and consumed at the counter. We also offered ice cream in several flavors in cones or dishes as well as our specialty and moneymaker – hand packed ice cream in one-pint cartons.
We toasted sandwiches to order such as bacon and tomato, pimento cheese, tuna fish salad, baked ham and the favorite – chicken salad. To make the chicken salad we opened a can of tuna fish and held it in a sieve under the hot water faucet to wash away the oil. This took place in the back, of course.
Everyone loved our “chicken salad.” We cooked the bacon on a kitchen range in the back. That’s also where we baked the ham. I was pleased when Bascom showed me how to score the ham, rub in the brown sugar and place a clove in each scored square.
Curb service was a pain, but it was part of the job. It went like this: the customer would park and honk. I would go out and take the order, come back in, fill the order, take it out on a tray and attach it to the car and come back in. When finished, the customer would honk again, and I would go out to pick up the money and tray. About half the time I would have to make the proper change inside and take it out to the customer. Occasionally I would get a 10-cent tip. Sometimes the customers would call me out with a honk and advise that I had forgotten the package of cookies, one chocolate and one vanilla that we gave with each shake or malt. Another trip back in and out.
As part of the soda fountain we had a stainless steel combination sink and corrugated drainboard. This is where we washed, rinsed and drained all the glassware, plates, knives, spoons, forks and mixer cups. All items were wiped dry with clean towels and stacked neatly on the mirrored back bar. At last we were ready to go home. Au contraire! We still had to scour the sinks and drainboard, hose down the duckboards and sweep and wet mop behind the soda fountain and tobacco counters. For the scouring chore we used stiff brushes and loaded them with Lava Soap. The drainboard was splashed with boiling water and sprinkled liberally with Old Dutch Cleanser. Then came the backbreaking rubbing with the Lava-loaded brushes. After rinsing with boiling water if all stains were gone we could dry the sinks and drainboard and head for home which, for me, was four city blocks north.
The uninsulated building that housed Headlee’s Drug Store faced west, which meant near intolerable heat in the summer, especially for the tobacco counter that was near the front. In due course the owner, Frank Headlee, had large package air conditioning units installed. The resulting exorbitant electric bills led to purchase and installation of a 10-kw Witte diesel engine-powered electric generator. When it was tested and operational down came the Arkansas Power & Light Company service wires. The generator ran for many months.
I enjoyed being a soda jerk and cherish the memories of Bascom Wallis and Headlee’s Drug Store.
(The author is a member of the White County Historical Society.)