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Drug store roots traced to mid-1850s
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Though it had only been open since early 2008, City Cafe was well on its way to becoming another downtown icon. All that went up in smoke Sunday in a fire that completely destroyed one of the oldest landmarks on the block.
Perhaps best known as the site of “the old drug store,” the building on the corner of Spring Street and East Main had been a place to dispense medicine to Warren County residents for some 150 years before it was transformed into City Cafe.
Warren County historian James A. Dillon, who has done extensive research, recalled the genesis of the historic building, which dates back to the mid-1800s.
“City Drug Store was part of the old city lot No. 28,” Dillon said. “Just a part of it because there were only three lots in that whole block up to Sparta Street.”
Dillon said the lot sold in the early 1800s, around 1812 or 1813, and a house was built there.
“The next thing I know about was there was a fellow named Clark who was operating a store there about 1842,” Dillon said. “In 1858, a man named William Betty bought it. He was a lawyer. His family members were very wealthy people from over in Smith County.
“Now, I suspect he might have built that building, the one that just burned, but I’m guessing,” Dillon said. “When the Civil War came, he went to war and was wounded at Shiloh, which was in 1862, so they discharged him. He came back to McMinnville and stayed a little while, and then he left. He may have been the one who sold it to J.B. Ritchie.”
The building’s history as a drug emporium began around that time. “I know it was a drug store after 1867 because that’s when J.B. Ritchie bought it and he made it a drugstore,” said Dillon.
“Then Ritchie took in a fellow named Smartt, and it became Ritchie & Smartt for a while,” Dillon continued. “Then after Ritchie was gone, Smartt took in a fellow named Hutchins, R.G. Hutchins. Then when Smartt died, he took in a fellow named Lusk Davies.”
At that point it became known as Hutchins & Davies Co., as noted on a mural painted on the wall of City Cafe in 2008 by local artist Carol Neal, who drew it from the original door, which was still stored on the upper floor.
“When Hutchins & Davies went out of business, Ernest Crouch bought it,” Dillon said, noting he had some personal memories of the building.
“In 1940 Tennessee went to the Rose Bowl in Southern California,” Dillon said. “I was just 12 year old. I came in to the office with my dad on a Saturday.”
His dad was James A. Dillon Sr., a local insurance agent. “I was running errands for him, and I told him I wanted to hear that ball game. Well the only place that had a radio was Hutchins & Davies drugstore. So I knew Mr. Hutchins real well and knew Mr. Lusk Davies real well, so I went over there and got me a chair and I listened to the ball game all the time it was on. Of course we got beat, but that was the first Rose Bowl game I ever got to listen to.”
In the 1950s, it became City Drug Store and Robert Morris Dinwiddie Sr. and his son, Robert Jr., ran it for many years, until it was purchased by Eckerd and then by the Medleys.
Robert Sr. died four years ago, but his wife, Ann, said the news of the fire was devastating.
“I haven’t been up there to see it,” Ann said. “I just can’t bear it. I know it’s gone, but in my heart it will always be there.”
Robert Jr., who also ran the drug store for a time, says the building held many wonderful memories for him.
“I bought it from dad in 1997,” Robert said. “And Eckerd bought it in 2003. Dad worked there until he retired.”
Robert Jr. said it was hard news for him to hear too.
“It was really a shock when I heard,” he said. “I had to see it for myself so I went downtown. It was one of those things where lots of things go through your mind as you watch it, a lot of emotions. The corner of Spring Street and Main has been an icon for the town for so many years. Somebody made the comment to me, ‘Well, there goes our memories.’ And I said ‘No. There goes the building, we still have our memories.’ As long as we’re living, as long as someone is living that ever was in there, whether it’s City Cafe, whether it’s City Drug Store, Hutchins & Davies, those memories live on, and stories will be told.
“Those memories aren’t gone, those memories are still vivid to me,” Dinwiddie continued. “Running around in there as a child, spinning around on the stools while your parents are telling you not to, but you’ve got to take that last little spin before they stop you. All of those things, from the pharmacy to the luncheonette, the chocolate nut stirs, the jewelry punch cards, all of those memories will be with us. I think that’s what we all have to hold on to.”