Apr 212010
 

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The Ever Ambitious Mr. Ball

The name of George Ball is nowhere to be seen at Hennepin and Franklin. He could, however, rightly be credited as founding owner of the original drugstore at 1942 Hennepin that became the iconic Burch Pharmacy, accurately heralded as the oldest continuously operating pharmacy in Minneapolis at the time of its demise in 2010.

Had the enterprising Ball been content to stay a druggist, George Burch may have remained a minor character in what would likely be called the Ball Pharmacy story.

Ball, however, had bigger ambitions. Starting with leadership roles in the Minnesota State Pharmaceutical Association, he moved from retail to the wider world of wholesale merchandising. In 1912, just after his business fire and move to 1942 Hennepin, he helped found the Merritt Drug Co., a cooperative “to manufacture and market household remedies and drugs under a multiform label,” as a trade journal noted. In 1913 was on the organization committee for the Minneapolis branch of the National Cooperative Drug Company, a St. Louis-based wholesaler owned and operated by retail druggists.

In what has the whiff of a coup, that company was soon succeeded by a Minneapolis-based concern called Northwestern Drug Company—with Ball as one of the founding directors. From original offices at 26 Hennepin Avenue (Home Insurance Company Building, later Berman Buckskin Building, razed 1994), the company linked 800 retail druggists in the region by 1929 and went on to become one of the state’s largest companies until its 1992 acquisition by Wisconsin counterpart F. Dohmen Company. (From 1962 to 1992, Northwestern Drug was based at 2001 N.E. Kennedy Street.)

SpyTwinCities - Ball Pharmacy and Burch Pharmacy, Minneapolis, appeared together in 1916 Minneapolis Tribune ad

Ball and Burch Together: Minneapolis Tribune ad, Oct. 24, 1916.

“One of the livest wires in drug circles in the state,” was the description applied to Ball in a 1918 North Western druggist article about the growing wholesaling company.

In 1917, Ball and his spouse, Inez. had moved into a newly built house at 5052 Vincent Avenue S. in Minneapolis. In 1921, Ball became the prime mover in a company spinoff called Northwestern Ice Cream Company, formed to economically manufacture and sell ice cream for drugstore soda fountains. This evidently was an answer to complaints from drugstores across the region that they were gouged by the prices charged by regular ice cream manufacturers.

“Mr. Ball is the active man in the organization and has shouldered all the details of the promotion work and will be managing charge of the plant as soon as it is completed,” breathlessly (missing commas and all) reported a publication called The Soda Fountain.

New Chapters for Ball’s Pharmacy
Photo of George A Ball in 1918, from Northwestern Druggist journal

Ball, 1918, Northwestern Druggist

Thus ended Ball’s days as a retail pharmacist. In December 1922, his business success and wealth soaring, Ball, then age 44, sold his eponymous pharmacy at 1942 Hennepin to one Judson M. Dix,  55, and his 26-year-old son, Paul B. Dix.

Even so, the burglarizing drug fiends who had plagued Ball couldn’t resist seeing him off with a farewell heist:

“Just prior to the sale of his pharmacy at 1942 Hennepin Avenue, George A. Ball, the proprietor, was held up and robbed by bandits as he was proceeding to a garage preparatory to motoring home,” reported Northwestern Druggist in May 1922.

The Ball Pharmacy was rebranded as the Dix Pharmacy, which it remained for roughly eight years. The building itself, meanwhile, had in 1920 been subleased by owner J.D. Ekstrum (a Minneapolis police sergeant who made it big in coal and warehouses)—for reasons not altogether clear—to William Hamm, the prominent St. Paul businessman and son of the founder of Hamm’s Brewing Company. Also not clear is when founding building owner Holman-Gerdes Co. relinquished control of the building.

(The purchase of the pharmacy by Hamm is intriguing because it occurred shortly after the start of prohibition. Pharmacies were legally allowed to dispense alcohol for medicinal purposes. The number of pharmacies skyrocketed around 1920, driven at least in part by bootlegging interests, according to many historians. Hamm’s has never been tied to tied to bootlegging, however.)

The history of Holman-Gerdes grocery is entwined with that of Burch Pharmacy. The grocery and meat retailer started as O.P. Holman in 1897. It was renamed Holman-Gerdes after the firm’s 1901 acquisition of the Lowry Hill Grocery Co., owned by Charles Gerdes. As late as 1919, Gerdes continued to run a store called “Chas. Gerdes, high-glass grocery” at 1818-20 Lyndale Avenue S. He also was associated with Mettler Meats, which later had a small store at 1940 Hennepin, next store to Burch Pharmacy. The Holman-Gerdes company retained its name after H.H. Steiner purchased the firm from Oliver Holman in 1910. It was Steiner who must have overseen the Holman-Gerdes company’s 1910 construction of the three-story building at 1936–42 Hennepin. The firm went back to the original Lowry Hill Grocery name in 1922; apparently in 1925 it was absorbed into the National Grocery Co.

The Ball store acquisition by Dix would be the last change of ownership before the pharmacy at 1942 Hennepin became the Burch Pharmacy. Some accounts have suggested, erroneously, that a drugstore called “Pereson Bros.” was in the space for a time—misinformation probably fueled by a Minnesota Historical Society photo labeled “Pereson Bros. Drugstore interior, Franklin and Hennepin, Minneapolis.”

Photo of a Dix Pharmacy prescription form, Feb. 1924.

Dix Pharmacy prescription form, 1924. Yellowed books of RX forms in the Burch basement documented the transition from Ball Pharmacy (1912-22) to Dix Pharmacy (1922-30) to Burch Pharmacy (1930-2010).

Just to set the record straight: Burch Pharmacy was never Pereson Bros. Dusty record books in the basement of Burch Pharmacy confirmed that the line of succession at 1942 Hennepin went directly from Ball to Dix to Burch. The Pereson Bros. Pharmacy actually was across the street, in a two-story stone-and-frame structure at 2000 Hennepin known as the Baxter Building. It was rebuilt in 1923, and ultimately demolished, in 1960, for the Scottish Rite Temple.

The drugstore at 2000 Hennepin predated the one at 1942 Hennepin by at least a decade. It was the Frank Yost Pharmacy in January 1902, the Larabee Pharmacy by Mary 1904, and the L.T. Lincoln Pharmacy around 1910. It was then owned by Marvin Jones (also owners of a pharmacy at 35th & Chicago), before being acquired, in 1925, by Hans C. Pereson and his brother (who also owned a pharmacy at 1229 Nicollet Avenue). It’s unclear how long the Pereson store—or another drugstore—was in business across the street from the Burch Pharmacy building.

Pharmacies bloomed across Minneapolis between 1900 and 1920. In 1913, a year after the Ball Pharmacy set up shop at Franklin and Hennepin, directories listed six drugstores on Hennepin in the ten blocks between Franklin and Lake Street: Ball’s (1942), L.T. Lincoln (2000) Burch (2200), Griffen’s (2547), C.H. McCoy (2329), and Washburn (3001).

By 1922, two of those had changed hands (Ball had become Dix, McCoy had become Broude Bros.) and at least five more drugstores had opened on Hennepin: Orman Bros. (2755), Jeter & Thill (2918), R.S. Heck and Anderson & Ranfranz (both at Hennepin and Lake), and F.O. DeWits (just past Lake Street at 3049 Hennepin).

The Dix Pharmacy would not last long. In December 1930, the history of the store begun by George Ball merged with that of the store begun by George Burch—although only one of the two Georges would live to see it happen.

The Rest of the Story: George S. Burch: Continue reading on next page»

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  12 Responses to “Vanishing Minneapolis: The End of Burch Pharmacy”

  1. Nice article……I just want to say that my father, is also a huge part of Burch’s history. He began his career there 60 years ago as a delivery person, worked his way through pharmacy school and then worked as a pharmacist/manager/and ultimately owner. He deserves credit and recognition for his 60 years of service there, in addition to many of the other long time, very dedicated employees.

  2. I have been compiling information on Burch Pharmacy for Hill and Lake Press – but mainly for the folks at Burch who have become very dear to me over the years. I am putting together a scrap book for them and was enthralled by the photos in your article about the Burch closing. The photo of Cal is something I would like to put in an article I am doing for Hill and Lake next month. I have seen Cal in that position a hundred times. Makes me want to cry – but it is a wonderful memory for many of us to be able to keep. I would of course give credit to Spy Twin Cities.

    Great article!!!!!

  3. Thanks so much for commenting. We’re especially honored and pleased that you wrote because of course your father must be Gene Johnson, the excellent “Mr. J.” who WAS Burch Pharmacy for so many years (and who continued to open the store nearly every morning until the bitter end). One of the true unsung heroes of city life, one of those truly indispensable, hard-working, caring, neighborly, and infinitely valuable people whose shops weave the fabric of neighborhoods and sustain generations.

    We know, too, that he links the earliest Burch Pharmacy (the Ben Cohen era) to the recent years (Cal Mathieson). Definitely a central part of “the rest of the story,” which we will in time be able to get posted here. We’ve also sat down recently to learn more from Gene himself.

  4. What a fascinating story! It reads like a well-paced thriller, complete with thugs, misfits, drugs, poisonings, suicide, mild debauchery, and all manner of mystery, mischief, and mayhem. In the end, though, it’s a wonderful tribute to a noble place that has now gone the way of etiquette and urbanity, card catalogs, Walnettos, and bowler hats. This is journalism and history writing at its best. Can’t wait to see what you take on next.

    RIP, Burch Pharmacy! We’ll miss you!

  5. Hello Spy Twin Cities. I just read your very nice comments about my Dad, and read them out loud to him this weekend. Thank you! I think they will bring him comfort during this sad time. I look forward to reading more of your article. Any chance we could get a copy of the photo of him with Burch’s in the background! dj

  6. Sorry, that last post should have had a question mark when I asked about getting a copy of the photo, or any others you might have of “Mister J”. We are more than happy to pay you for them……thanks

  7. Wonderful article- but waiting for the follow-up.

    Also- I posted a link to this article on the Facebook site “Old Minneapolis”, where I’m certain there will be many more comments, their seems to be quite a number of history buffs in this town, eager for as much information they can get. I’m one of them…

  8. I lived across the street from Dupont Elementary in 1969. An uncle visited and told me that when he belonged to the Masons, while in school at the U of M in the 40’s, that they’d met upstairs of the drug store. I was always aware of the large Mason Hall on Franklin and Dupont, also.

    When my daughter was still a student at Macalester, in the early 2000’s, she would attend Saturday, African Dance Classes led by Morris Johnson in what was also the famous Cassandra, the Middle Eastern Dancer’s Jawaahir studio, which I came to realize was probably the very room the Free-Masons had once met in.

    I used to purchase many a variety of things in that store when I lived in the neighborhood. Wonderful cards, address books, X-mas presents–games for my younger brothers … in that store. The window displays, indeed, were always eye-catching-interesting and lovely. What a shocker, last summer, to drive by and see the building gutted. Another lost Twin Cities story.

  9. The author should note, I believe it was in the mid-1970’s, a robber was walking out of the store and encountered a Minneapolis police officer responding on the silent alarm call. Gunfire was exchanged. The robber lost.

  10. Is there any chance that the author of this article can let us know when he/she might be able to write the rest of the story? I am one of those very interested in hearing it. Many thanks for what has been written so far. It has been very fascinating.

  11. Thanks for your comment–your interest is a welcome shot in the arm. Have loved researching the Burch story and have lots more material to share. Aiming to carve out time by fall.

  12. Regarding Carol’s comment, that school was Douglas Elementary School. Minneapolis never had a school by the name of Dupont and Douglas was the only school in the immediate area. But it was on Dupont Avenue (at Franklin. Now townhomes).

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