Waller Albritton wrote a prescription for retail success at the turn of the century and left a colorful Paducah legacy at the corner of 32nd and Broadway
Local businesses are a vital part of any community, whether they are in the largest of cities or the smallest of towns. The impact is not always simply economical. There are those establishments that transcend business status and become part of the societal fabric. They don't just provide goods and services; they exude their own personalities, creating moments and memories that help shape who we are. Albritton's Drug Store was one such business to Paducah.
The first incarnation of Albritton's opened in the early 1900s at the corner of 6th and Clay by Waller Albritton. Back then, the art of the apothecary at the local drug store was extremely important. Most everything was compounded locally, and the pharmacist's skill and attention to detail were prime ingredients in patient healthcare. Waller worked diligently at his craft, creating a name for himself in Paducah.
It wasn't long, however, before he decided to expand his business and make a move that many called crazy. In 1924, Albritton's Drug Store moved to the intersection of 32nd and Broadway. While that may not seem like such a big deal nowadays, that part of town was considered "out there" back then. In fact, it was outside the city limits and almost rural. It was where the streetcar service ended and many city folks considered that area the farthest reaches of town. Waller, however, had a plan, and he knew it would work.
The new building had a futuristic look to it. It was odd-shaped and asymmetrical. Waller added signs painted with a 3-D effect creating an aura that was ahead of its time. He also knew that the latest business opportunity for the family-owned pharmacy was the addition of food service, the soda fountain, and curb service. Waller, his wife Beulah who was known as Boo, and their five children went to work in a truly family business.
The response was overwhelming. Mrs. Albritton stayed busy with food prep, making what she described as barrels of pimento cheese and tuna salad in the basement. The children worked hard as well. Marilyn, the youngest, had to use a stool to reach the cash register. The family also served homemade ice cream. It soon became what Albritton's was most known for.
Edwin Albritton, a third generation pharmacist in the family, says he hears more about the ice cream at Albritton's than just about anything else. "It truly was handcrafted," he says. "They were family recipes, and they were all made right there in the store. Many people talk about the electric ice cream makers they used, but in the early days, it was all hand-cranked. And it was unique ice cream, too. We had chip chocolate, for example. People may ask, 'Don't you mean chocolate chip?' No, this was an Albritton's ice cream, and it was done differently with hand-shaved chocolate. One of the most popular flavors was our own Creme Brulee. I still hear about it. It wasn't for the faint of heart to make, however. I have a handwritten version of the recipe from my mom, and you cook the sugar until it turns black. The recipe says to do this step outside!"
Edwin also hears a lot about the nickel ham sandwiches. "I did some figuring on that, and I just couldn't see how they could serve ham sandwiches for a nickel and make anything, even back then. I asked someone who knew about the sandwiches, and they told me the ham was actually ring bologna. But, people loved it, and still remember it."
The food at Albritton's became well known in the area. Edwin's father, who was adventurous if not at times a little rebellious, was in the Marine Corps and found himself in brig for refusing to shave his mustache. A captain, who was from nearby Mayfield and looking for a good cook, heard the name Albritton and wanted to know if he was connected to the pharmacy in Paducah. He told Edwin's dad that if he'd come be a cook and just shave according to Marine guidelines that he'd get him out the brig.
The business grew to the point that Waller and Boo hired local boys as carhops for 50 cents per five-hour shift. The kids were overwhelmingly grateful for such wages, especially during the Depression. They became as much a part of the family as any one of the Albritton children, and many Paducahans got their working start with the family.
The move to the outskirts of town was a good one when the flood hit in 1937. Albritton's was already entering into the fabric of Paducah life as THE place to hang out, but it was during the flood that the Albritton's commitment to community became even more evident when it was a central service point outside of the flood zone.
During WWII, Albritton's was home-front headquarters for the city of Paducah. Much of it had to do with Waller's overwhelming support of the boys serving overseas. All four of his sons were among them. Many of the carhops went straight from their jobs at Albritton's to the war. They sent photos back to Boo who kept and treasured them all. Waller placed a large sign outside the drug store that listed all the former carhops and employees that were called off to war. He called it his Honor Roll. The list was amazingly long, and his own boys' names were at the top. Yank Magazine, the Army weekly designed to boost morale during the war, came to Paducah in 1944 and featured Albritton's in a special article entitled Hometowns During War Time: Paducah KY.
Edwin, who ran the pharmacy from 1978 to 1993, agrees that Albritton's was influential on the personality of Paducah. "I got to meet a lot of people who made Paducah," he says. "Mr. Carson used to come over all the time and talk. So many people got started working there." He recently looked through the old employee registers, and it read like a who's who of Paducah.
"There were so many familiar names in the books. I recently saw the name of Jim Skaggs who started cooking at Albritton's. He went on to open the famous Skinhead's."
Over the years, Albritton's continued to evolve. The pharmacy stopped the carhop service in the mid-fifties, moved to a new building adjacent to the first location, and, like most other pharmacies, went to self serve wherever possible. By 1993, Edwin decided that the time was right to close Albritton's. "At that point you really had to diversify into home heath equipment and other things in order to survive."
And most recently, the buildings that housed the various stages of Albritton's were torn down. "I've had a lot of people come to me sad," says Edwin. "But you know, there are a lot of memories there. I hear all the time about kids walking down from St. Thomas More and Clark schools to get candy. Some even ran up their parents' tabs because they thought it was magical that they could get candy by just giving their dads' names. People remember the ice cream, the sandwiches, and hanging out with friends. You can tear down a building, but you can't tear down memories."