Doc Hughes, A Vintage Vignette
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
July 26, 2009
During perusal of 1800-era newspapers of the Huntsville area, I have often noticed ads for New York lotteries and opium products from drug stores. Though counter to our culture today, they were routine over a century ago. It is difficult to understand the appeal of such things, especially a lottery based in New York for a “frontier town” in northern Alabama before the time of the internet, TV, radio, telephone, or even telegraph. In those days pharmacies openly offered a variety of drugs over the counter, including opium and morphine. When you stop to think about it, some of the citizens of that day accomplished great things while gambling on lotteries and using what today are illicit drugs. Just think how much more they could perhaps have accomplished if they had not lost money in lotteries and if they had not been influenced by mind-altering drugs.
However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the pharmacists of those days were not sacrificing the health and welfare of their customers in order to pursue profits. In fact, the opposite is true. They were rather attempting to assist their clientele in achieving a reasonable quality of life against adverse circumstances by using whatever was available at the time. The attitude and personality of at least one old time pharmacist was captured in material that Percy Keel collected and preserved. The notes that follow were prepared in the handwriting of G. Walton (“Doc”) Hughes, Madison’s premier pharmacist in the mid-1900s. He was apparently preparing a speech in 1971 for an organization or club meeting. The notes indicate his dedication to the community:
“After such a fine introduction I can hardly wait to hear myself talk. I am glad he (the unknown moderator of the meeting) told you that I was also a farmer. I want people to know that I make an honest living farming. However, I do think we have the finest drugstore in any small town anywhere. Only a few weeks ago I was summoned to court as a character witness, and being a good friend of the judge, he as a matter of routine asked my name and my profession. He said ‘Do you rate the drugstore the best in Madison? Would you say the best in Madison County?’ I said ‘Yes, sir.’ Then he said ‘Would you say the best in Alabama?’ I said ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Would you say the best in the U.S.A.?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Then you’d say you ran the best drugstore in the world, wouldn’t you?’ And I said ‘Yes, sir’.”
“Several weeks later at a meeting of the pharmacists of Madison County, some of the fellows had heard about it and were chiding me. One of the fellows said ‘Hughes, why did you tell the judge that you operate the best drugstore…in the world?’ I replied ‘I was sworn to tell the truth’.”
“I do not want to be boastful and hope that you will not think me vain when I tell you that for some 40 years or more I was torn between Madison and Huntsville. Now that I have become quite famous, I find that Madison and Huntsville both ‘claim’ me. Huntsville claims that I was born in Madison, and Madison claims that I was born in Huntsville.” “I was trained in the era when we made all our pills by hand, a very slow process. We continue to make a few of them, as you cannot buy them any more – not enough volume for the big manufacturers of today. It was 49 years ago that I started work in the store we now own. We are proud of the fact that this is the 100th anniversary of this store, and in the 100 years it has only had two owners. The drug business is very interesting, and I know of no business more rewarding – not financially, but from helping people. I think there is no place where you can have an opportunity to render more service than in a drugstore such as ours.”
After closing his drugstore, Doc passed away December 25, 1976, but his memory lives with his descendants and older residents of Madison.