Apr 212010

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Ben Cohen and the Making of Burch Pharmacy

GEORGE BURCH provided the name, and George Ball the space. But it was Ben Cohen, the second owner, who made Burch Pharmacy in southwest Minneapolis into a neighborhood institution.

Cohen was just 21 years old in 1914 when George Burch hired him to run the pharmacy counter in his mahogany-appointed pharmacy at 2200 Hennepin, in the rebuilt Ball Pharmacy space. Within three years, Cohen bought the biz–and he remained at the helm until dying of a heart attack, prematurely, in 1961.

One of five children of Polish immigrants Isadore and Goldie Cohen, Ben Cohen was born in 1893 and grew up in Minneapolis’s emerging residential neighborhoods just south of downtown. During his boyhood his family lived in apartments at 515 Eighth Ave. S. (1900), 342 E. 17th Street (1906), and 1714 Elliot Avenue S. (1910)—all of these addresses among the Elliot Park blocks razed in the 1960s for the construction of the I94 and I35W freeways.

Photo of Ben M. Cohen, 1913 University of Minnesota Gopher yearbook

“Every cloud is silver lined,” reads Ben M. Cohen’s quote in the University of Minnesota Gopher yearbook in 1913. He graduated that year with a degree in pharmacy and a year later went to work for George S. Burch.

Ben’s father, Isadore, ran a downtown saloon in 1900 and went on to own other small businesses and to invest in real estate. In 1907, when Ben was 14, the family suffered a tragic loss: Ben’s 12-year-old brother, Joseph, drowned falling off a log into fast-moving currents at the confluence of Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River. He had been larking around with a pal near the boat landing at the Soldiers Home, having gone for the fun of seeing a small steamer arrive from downtown St. Paul.

Ben, the only surviving son, went on to graduate from Minneapolis Central High School (the first one, on 11th Street and Third Avenue South) and to earn a pharmacy degree from the University of Minnesota, where he was secretary-treasurer of the senior class.

Cohen joined Burch Pharmacy in May 1914, almost right out of pharmacy school.
“Ben M Cohen ’13, now at the Eureka Drug will take a position with Geo. S. Burch Pharmacy … about May 1,” announced Northwestern Druggist in a May 1914 item headed “Alumni, University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy.”

The Burch store at 22nd and Hennepin (aka 2200 Dupont) had been open for just over a year. Its gadabout owner presumably was delighted to have Cohen hold down the fort behind the pharmacy counter, freeing Burch for his many social activities and sporting pursuits.

Within three years, Cohen owned the business—and he went on to remain at the helm of Burch Pharmacy for nearly a half century.

Burch Pharmacy is remembered as a neighborhood mainstay at Hennepin and Franklin avenues, with its first 17 years at 22nd and Hennepin now little more than a historical footnote. Cohen added the second store in 1930, taking over the Dix Pharmacy two blocks north that had started out as George Ball’s store. For a time, Cohen ran two Burch Pharmacies. The 22nd and Hennepin store was still operating in 1935, as captured by a photo now in the Minnesota Historical Society archives (see photo at the top of page 2 of this story).

The second store would seem to have been a premium location, closer to the mansions of Lowry Hill and right at the cross of two streetcar lines. It may have disappointed Cohen that the city had in 1911 chosen Franklin Avenue for its first crosstown streetcar line between downtown and Lake Street—“in spite of the objections of property owners” on 22nd, 25th, and 19th streets, noted the Minneapolis Morning Tribune. The route, which ran from the Franklin Avenue bridge to Lake of the Isles, accelerated the development of the blocks east of Lake of the Isles.

In any case, by the late 1930s, he had sold the original George Burch store to focus on a single Burch Pharmacy at the 1942 Hennepin.

Drugstores routinely rebranded when they changed hands, but Cohen had stuck with the Burch name when he bought the store in 1917, and had retained it even after George Burch’s unquiet shooting death in 1922.

Cohen is said to have been an unfailingly pleasant and courteous man of somewhat formal disposition who was always attired in good suits. The impressions come from Gene Johnson, who worked with Ben Cohen starting in 1951—and eventually succeeded Cohen as the Burch Pharmacy’s owner.

In the Middle: Judson M. Dix

The man sandwiched between the two Georges, Judson Dix, had been in the drug business for 37 years, having passed his pharmacy exam, in Madison, Wisc., in 1885. Originally from the small southwestern town of Elroy, where his brother still worked as a druggist, Judson and wife Gertrude Evans Dix resided at 4528 Aldrich Ave. with their four children.

Judson Dix’s business partner was his son Paul Bartlett Dix, 26, who had left his sophomore year at Macalester College to serve in France in the First World War. Not content merely to clerk behind the pharmacy counter, he enrolled in the Minneapolis Institute of Pharmacy about the time of the Ball-to-Dix sale. The Dix pere and fils had recently disposed of a “suburban drugstore” at 31st and Nicollet to Kerker & Sons. Before that, Judson Dix had worked as a pharmacist at A.D. Thompson, Fourth and Nicollet, and more recently in the drug department of the Gamble & Ludwig store downtown at 901 Hennepin—an immense store that until 1920 couldn’t decide whether to focus on drugs or paint (paint won, and the drug biz was spun off to Oscar Tinvold and Merrill Roberts).

The store Dix inherited from Ball was, proclaimed Northwestern Druggist, “one of the finest in the Mil City.” Dix seems to have taken a special interest in sweets, adding a confectionery business in 1923 and winning a prize for a candy-themed window display in 1925.

Photo of Burch Pharmacy delivery truck, fall 1930, shortly after the store opened at Hennepin & Franklin, Minneapolis

Burch Pharmacy delivery truck, fall 1930—just after Ben Cohen expanded his Burch franchise to Hennepin & Franklin. Photo courtesy Gene Johnson.

Please stay tuned …
…as the old TV test-patterns used to say. I’m working to complete the long and rich story of Burch Pharmacy.

I’ve done all the research—it’s just a matter of writing it up and getting the text (and photos) onto the site. I hope to have the rest of the story posted within the next few days … the rest of the Ben Cohen story, as well as the store’s long stewardship by Gene Johnson (with Victor Hanson) and the last decade under Cal Mathieson.

I have a day job, so please bear with me for a time …
and come back soon to read the rest of the story.

by K.M. Tyler for Spy Twin Cities.
©2014 SpyTwinCities.com. Thanks for reading … if you borrow or quote from this article, please include a shout-out and link to Spy Twin Cities.

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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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