A Little History Mystery
Story and photos by Christina Santee
When 11-year-old Morgan County Elementary School fifth-graders Robby Ferrante and Erik Riedlinger went on a field trip with their classmates to explore Madison’s African-American History Museum, they were unaware that a piece of undiscovered history would find them, and in the most unusual way.
While taking a break outside in the shade, the boys literally stumbled on an antique glass bottle, most likely used to bottle prescription drugs. Inscribed in the glass is “The Corner Drug Store.”
“We went to the major drug stores [around town] to ask about it,” Robby said. “We figured out that the place it came from was where the First Franklin Financial is now. So right next to where Amici’s is.”
After speaking with locals over at the Thrifty Mac Pharmacy, Robby found that one of Madison’s very own had found her first job at The Corner Drugstore, Nita Peppers.
“In 1948, her first job was at The Corner Drug Store at Ye Old Colonial,” Robby said.
According to the information the Ferrantes found, there were three big drug stores in the downtown historic Madison area.
“Where Godfrey Cox is now was the middle drug store,” said Meg Ferrante, Robby’s mother. “The lower drug store is where The Corner Drug Store used to be. There were three right in a row. It was like having three mini Wal-Marts here within 20 feet of each other.”
Robby is certain that the “upper” drug store was placed in the lot that currently houses The Silver Fox jewelry boutique.
The discovery of the bottle and an unquenchable thirst for further knowledge kept Robby and his mother in a determined state, ultimately gathering bits and pieces from several helpful Madisonians.
“We went to the city manager and he told us about Ken Kocher,” Robby said. “He is the historic preservation committee staff consultant. He gave us some information about The Corner Drug Store and [said] that it was definitely one of the bigger drug stores” in town.
Robby, along with his family, also sought assistance from Madison historian, Marshall “Woody” Williams.
“The last year he could find them on the tax records as Hunter & Brooks is how we narrowed [the age] down,” Meg said. “I was thinking 1908, but it could have been 1910.”
It was determined that the bottle was older than Robby had initially assumed.
“We know it’s at least 100 years old,” Robby said.
“We recently found out, too, that there used to be little tenement houses there,” Meg said. “People used to dump their trash just right out under the porch and that’s probably why it was there.”
Robby and his mother suspect that recent construction near the site of the antiquity’s retrieval is responsible for the unearthing of the piece.
“We’re guessing it washed down from where they’re [building] the new United Methodist Church parking lot,” Robby said. “We’re thinking it was dug up and it washed down from the construction site. It had met a curb, where it stopped.”
The field trip Robby and Erik took with their classmates is an annual tradition of MCES for its rising sixth graders.
“It was a field trip that our school does every year for the fifth graders,” Robby said. “[The students and chaperones] get to walk around town to learn about our history.”
Robby and his classmates had taken a quick break to seek refuge from the heat under the large trees lining the parking lot. He says that’s where his best friend, Erik, almost tripped over the artifact. The boys showed the bottle to one of the chaperones, and the excitement was sparked.
“I was amazed that I found something so old. It wasn’t chipped or anything. It was like brand-new. “ Other time-stamped characteristics that told the boys their find was old, was the shape of the bottle and the lip of the bottle. “Also, it was just filled with dirt,” Robby said.
Robby’s mother, Meg, was chaperoning for the field trip.
“It was just amazing that [they found it] on a historical tour of Madison,” Meg said. “To find this treasure right in the middle of the trip, it was a great day. We were really happy.”
Robby and his mom have big plans for the small valuable; they just haven’t decided which route to go.
“We went around to all the antique shops and they would offer around $25,” Robby said. “What we decided is that we’re either going to donate it to the cultural center or we’re going to see if someone will give us a little more money.”
Because most antique stores have old and unique bottles readily available, Meg thinks they will likely pass up most offers and simply donate it to an interested Madison venue.
“It was part of our history,” Robby said. “It was the Wal-Mart of the time. You could get anything there. Garden seed, food, drinks. They had one of the first drink fountains of Madison, and so you could get a lot of stuff there.”
The Corner Drug Store also carried assortments of paints, school books, fancy toilet articles, perfumes, jewelry and silverware.
Appropriately, history is Robby’s favorite subject in school.
“I want to be an archeologist,” Robby said. “I know some people who don’t really like history, but I think it’s way cool to know what used to happen.”
Although any mother would be pleased with her child being interested in something like history, Meg’s ecstatic that her eldest son had the opportunity to learn of the past first-hand.
“To just see the difference between the way we keep our medicine today and the way medicine obviously used to be was interesting. Now, we get [our prescriptions] filled in a little plastic bottle, but this had a cork in it.
“I thought it was the best souvenir he could have had for that day,” Meg said. “We could have stopped in any gift shop and it wouldn’t have been equivalent to him finding this perfectly intact glass bottle that was embossed with the name of the company. It was a great find.”
After his thrilling discovery, Robby is eager to continue collecting other pieces of history such as coins and vintage baseball cards.
“When you find something [old], you feel that you’ve found part of history,” Robby said. “It makes you feel good.”
Printed in the July 28 edition