Byrnes Pharmacy Traces Roots Back to Antebellum Period
by Thomas E. Byrnes, RPh
This article deals with the drug stores and the druggist/pharmacist that were located on the west side of the square known as “Farmers’ Exchange.” All available records show there has always been a drug store/pharmacy that has occupied the building at this address for a total of 172 years, with no recorded vacancies.
In the spring of 1842 James Swain and Addison J. Ray opened a book and drug store in the new “Farmers’ Exchange” block on the west side of the Nunda Village Square. They announced to the townspeople that they could be found at “The Sign of the Gilt Mortar.” The wood framed buildings on the west side of State Street were constructed in the early 1830’s. James Swain was one of the sons of the pioneer Samuel Swain and was a scholarly man. He not only sold books but he was the agent for newspapers and magazines. The Young Men’s Lyceum of Nunda held debates at “Swain’s Hall” (the front room of the third story over the drug store). Debates were held every Monday evening at 6:30 pm. The “disputants”, as they called themselves, debated many weighty subjects, and also, just for the fun of it, such question as “Has science been benefited by the invention of the wooden nutmeg?” Addison Ray was the druggist in the firm, though he too was interested in selling books.
It is believed that the next firm at this location was Ashley Brothers & Gilmore who were partners until 1860. Elias and Gilbert Ashley, brothers, called the store “Apothecary’s Hall. Gilmore, the third partner, was John Gilmore MD a graduate of Geneva Medical College came to Nunda in 1831. A dozen letters were found in the attic of the drug store date from 1858 to 1860 from suppliers of goods sold at the drug store.
The following is a letter dated Sept 20, 1858
The above company sold gas chandeliers, solar, camphene & fluid lamps.
Elias Ashley had several other irons in the fire, however, and sold his interest in May of 1862 to Dr. J.V.D. Coon, who was in partnership with his brother-in-law, Jasper J. Robinson. They still kept the name of the drug store as “Apothecary Hall”. Jasper J. is the first of several Robinsons to be associated with the store. Gilbert Ashley sold his interest shortly thereafter to Dr. Coon and J.J. Robinson and went to Illinois. The store was now known as Coon & Robinson (general dealers in drugs and medicines). Several changes took place in the building in the 1870s. It was enlarged by lengthening it in 1879. A soda fountain was added in 1873 but was only in operation during the summer months. Nearly all stores had wooden awnings that were actually roofs above the blank sidewalks. The were fastened to the post of the hitching rails at the curbs. At least one band concert was played from the drug store awning, but it was taken down in 1880. There were others who were connected with the store a while and moved on. But when John O’Connell went there to work in 1875 he was to stay for 60 years. The remarkable thing was that in all those years he never missed a day at work.
In 1902 Dr. Coon sold the drug store to William Young Robinson and moved to Olean. Mr. Robinson was always referred to as “W.Y.”. Robinson received his druggist license from the State of New York, December 6, 1884. W.Y. was a life long Republican and for many years was secretary and treasurer of the Republican County Committee. He served Nunda a Supervisor from 1879 through 1881 and was Chairman of the Board of Livingston County Supervisors for one term. He served as State Assemblyman in 1886-87 and again in 1903-04. Mr. Robinson would leave John O’Connell. a long time druggist, to manage the store while he served in the New York Assembly the first two months of the year. When he returned in March the old timers would gather around the stove and use the spittoon that sat next to the coal stove. W.Y. would fill them in on politics and the affairs of the state. He enjoyed a wide acquaintance and was generally regarded as a successful political leader. As a businessman he was “square to a cent” and his store always enjoyed a liberal patronage. W. Y. Robinson died in December 1913 at the Steuben Sanitarium in Hornell. His mercantile business would continue under his estate until 1921.
John O’Connell was born in 1852. At the age of 23 he accepted a clerkship with Coon & Robinson in 1875. Mr. O’Connell received his druggist license from the State of New York December 5, 1884. John O’Connell purchased the drug store from the W.Y. Robinson estate in April 1921. His niece, Josephine O’Connell, clerked for her Uncle John for many years and continued employment with the new owner Paul A. Byrnes. Mr. O’Connell outlived both his wife and daughter. He died in 1942.
Paul A. Byrnes purchased the drug store from John O’Connell in the fall of 1935. His first day of business was November 13, 1935. A 1934 graduate of the Albany College of Pharmacy and licensed by the State Board of Pharmacy on September 29, 1934. Paul learned that the store was for sale through a salesman while working in Kingston, NY. Since Paul was newly married to his wife, Ethel, and they were expecting their first child they engaged his father John Byrnes, a carpenter, to renovate the second story over the drug store suitable for an apartment. In May of 1940, Paul and Ethel purchased the property at 12 Vermont Street. The house was the boyhood home of Clarence Koeppe the author of “Tink of Nunda”.
A soda fountain was added to the drug store during the war years, 1941-1946. Borden’s Ice Cream was featured combined with a small lunch counter and booths. Fawn Pop was sold bottled by the Fawn Beverage Co. Elmira NY. During the 1940s Pail also sold wallpaper and Benjamin Moore paint. Sales from the Double Kay roasting nut machine with its carousel were enjoyed before and after a movie at the Nunda Theater.
The oldest son Thomas entered the Albany College of Pharmacy in the fall of 1953 and graduated with a BS degree in Pharmacy in June of 1957. He was licensed by the State of New York on December 11. 1957. After service the army as a pharmacy technician, Tom joined his dad in business in September of 1960. In September of 1968 the former Stuart A. Trescott building was purchased and added on to the south side of the pharmacy. The following year the dividing wall was removed, structural changes were made, and a new colonial store front was added with new signage.
The Byrnes’ third son, James, entered the Albany College of Pharmacy in 1961 and graduated with a BS degree in Pharmacy in 1966 and he was licensed by the State of New York on March 1, 1967. James took a position at Craig Developmental Center in Sonyea and later became Chief Pharmacist at that facility until he took a state retirement. James became a full time Pharmacist with the firm in May of 1999. Paul retired from the business after 48 years of service on April 30, 1983. At that time the business incorporated with Thomas Byrnes as President and Supervising Pharmacist. He held that position until 2002. James, who had been Vice President, moved up to President and Supervising Pharmacist. Paul, the former owner and founder of the business, passed away on October 17, 1999 at the age of 87. In 1987 the store was complete remodeled, including installing a computerized prescription system.
March 31, 2005 was the last day of the family business that had begun nearly 70 years ago. On April 1, 2005 the former Byrnes Pharmacy became the Nunda Family Pharmacy. Owned and operated by Jeremiah and Susie Axtell, the new operation continues a story that has its origins in 1842.
Note: A more complete account of Drug Store history appears in a book titled, “Two Centuries of Medical Care in the Town of Nunda and Vicinity”. Author Thomas E. Byrnes, RPh, is a member and a director of the Nunda Historical Society were this book may be purchased.