Soda pop shop: Soda and malt shops conjure up images of the past

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The Union Station soda fountain in its heyday.

Do you remember that first vanilla malted you ever had down at the local soda fountain? How about a cherry Coke or a root beer float?

Sheer nirvana, some would say, and pretty difficult to replicate today. But there still are functioning vintage soda and malt shops scattered throughout the country, as well as those preserved by museums and historical societies.

Counter service soda fountains have been around since the late 1890s and they quickly proved to be a popular attraction with their selections of ice cream sodas, chocolate malteds, milkshakes and fountain colas.

The South Side Soda Shop in Goshen, Ind., can trace its roots to 1910 when the business at 1122 S. Main Street was opened as a grocery store that also served as a post office and bus stop. It would be another 34 years until a Bastian Blessings soda fountain was installed, beginning the transformation into a soda shop. A stamped plate on the soda fountain identifies it as an All Dry Soda Fountain, Bastian Blessings Company, Chicago, Illinois.

“The soda fountain has four heads on it for carbonated water, regular water and two pre-mixes,” said Nick Boyd, who owns the South Side Soda Shop with his wife Charity. The Boyds, antique dealers handling American artifacts, bought the building in 1984 and spent more than a year restoring the structure and soda fountain, reopening in January 1986.

“Having people return and reminisce about their time here is an appealing part of operating the shop,” Nick Boyd said. “There’s a small college down the road and we get people coming back here who attended college in the 1940s and they show their kids where they played pinball and enjoyed malteds and sodas.”

Part of the allure of the soda shop, Boyd pointed out, is that it’s like a functioning museum.

“They didn’t have canned or bottled products back then, so we give them what was available at the time, like fountain syrups in cherry, vanilla, orange and Green River flavors,” he said. “We push down a fountain head and syrup comes out that we mix with carbonated water, then stir and serve.”

Boyd noted other sodas available include vanilla and cherry Cokes, root beer and cherry Sprite.

With the success of the soda shop, Boyd and his father-in-law built an addition crafted to look like an old-time diner that added considerable seating and allowed them to provide booth service for meals.

Many soda fountains started out in drug stores and that was the case in Ackley, Iowa, where the soda fountain now resides in the Ackley Heritage Center Soda Shop and Museum.

In 1909, Henry P. Roth started a drug store on the south side of Main Street and two years later installed a soda fountain. After his death in 1915, his brother Charles took over the business, later moving the drug store and replacing the soda fountain with a Liquid Mechanicold model in 1931.

“The soda fountain has two large taps for water and seltzer, and six smaller ones for sodas,” said Hollis Ryken, who with his wife Bev, were responsible for saving the soda fountain and getting it operational in the Heritage Center.

“All of the counter, the six stools and soda fountain equipment are original,” Hollis Ryken said. “The original mirror in back was gone, so a local carpenter donated his services and put the back bar together, along with stained glass donated by another person. And all the ice cream parlor chairs and tables are antique or vintage, some coming from the drug store and others from an old local tavern.”

The Heritage Center bought the drug store building and contents in 1996 and today operates the soda shop daily through a staff of volunteers.

“The soda shop is a tourist attraction,” said Bev Ryken. “In the soda fountain area we also have displays of early Iowa businesses, old medical equipment and original drug store displays from the early 1900s.”

When Omaha, Nebraska’s Union Station was built in 1931, train travel was popular and so were soda fountains. Union Station’s soda fountain served a combination function, also selling gifts, candy, cigars and cigarettes.

“In its heyday, this was a major rail station with 10,000 people coming through daily,” said Shawna Forsberg, director of marketing and public relations for the Durham Museum, which now owns and operates the soda fountain in the former station. “Union Station is one of the best art deco stations left in the country.”

After the station closed in 1971, Union Pacific Railroad donated the building at 801 South 10th Street to the city of Omaha, which rents it for $1 a year to the museum, Forsberg noted. But it took until 1983 before funds could be found through a volunteer group that raised $9,000 to restore the soda fountain.

“The group called the Red Caps raised the money and personally came in and restored the fountain,” Forsberg said. “And in 2006, we restored it once more.”

The soda fountain provides a variety of phosphates, she said, from root beer to Coke to lime and others. In addition, it has “phenomenal ice cream,” she added, “with malts and shakes that come in overflow cups, made with old-fashioned ice cream, whipped cream and cherries.”

Forsberg noted that “Some older folks tell us this was the place to go on a first date. The soda fountain evokes strong memories for a lot of people.”

On the other end of the country, the historical flavor of a 1950s-style malt shop can be found in Phoenix, Ariz., at Mac Alpine’s Soda Fountain. The former Rexall Drug Store had a soda fountain in it which still exists, complete with high counter and original stools.

“The original gravity-fed Coke machine is still here, but doesn’t work, so we keep it on display,” said Cary Heizenrader, who’s owned Mac Alpine’s for the past eight years. “The challenges of running a soda fountain are the best part — maintaining the equipment and keeping the look original so when you come here you step back into the 1950s.”

Part of the 1950s look in Mac Alpine’s, located at 2303 N. 7th Street, is a 1952 Seabird 100 juke box that still plays tunes for patrons.

“We have to put a lot of work into it to keep it functioning,” Heizenrader noted.

In addition to ice creams with a variety of syrups, and sodas of all types, Mac Alpine’s is well known for its menu of cold and hot sandwiches and homemade soups and salads.

“But the favorites are the banana splits, hot fudge sundaes and flavored sodas,” Heizenrader said. “And phosphates, shakes and malts are up there too.”

Other places around the country that are keeping the tradition of the 19th century soda shop alive include the Fort Smith (Arkansas) Museum of History, where an old-style drugstore with a working soda fountain are displayed, as well as the Chippewa Valley Museum in Eau Claire, Wis., with its working soda fountain that operated in the area between 1895 and 1924.

In Medina, Ohio, there’s the America’s Ice Cream and Dairy Museum at Elm Farm, which has a restored 1900s soda fountain with a 20-foot green-and-white Italian marble counter, vintage ice cream freezers, scoops and milk bottles, along with restored milk and ice cream delivery trucks.

More Images:

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1950s representation of American soda fountain Artist rendering of soda fountain circa 1890.
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A "soda jerk" serving an ice cream soda (1936).
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The soda fountain at Ackley Heritage Center.
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A popcorn machine adds to the history in Ackley's soda shop.
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The antique cash register from the original soda fountain in the Roth drug store.
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The interior of the South Side Soda Shop in Goshen, Indiana.
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Three Red Caps work the soda fountain after it was restored at Durham Museum.
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Postcard of a gentleman explaining the workings of an early soda fountain.
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The South Side Diner, an addition to the soda shop, built to look like a vintage diner.

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