I just love my trips back to Burlington, Iowa, especially in the warm months. The highlight of my trip in June was attending my reunion for the Notre Dame High School class of 1977. It was a blast to see old friends, meet their spouses, and see a few of our teachers, too!
Class reunions don’t happen every summer of course, so I’m sharing with you my top three things to do when my husband, Gary Brandt, and I visit Burlington. (There are lots of other things we love, but these are at the top.)
Eat a pork tenderloin sandwich at The Som (formerly known as The Sombrero).I started being a “regular” at The Som in the early 1980s, when I launched my journalism career as a reporter at The Hawk Eye. I think Gin and Tonics cost 90 cents back then. I also honed some pool shooting skills there too, hanging out with my Hawk Eye colleagues Jane Daly, Mike Sweet, and others. For this last trip, Gary and I took my mother there for lunch and she surely enjoyed her tenderloin and beer!
2. Cheer for the Burlington Bees. Fortunately, that was the Friday night activity for the Class of ’77. I have to say that I was so busy talking to my classmates that I barely watched the game, until the final inning when the Bees had a chance to tie the game. Alas, that didn’t happen and they lost to Peoria, 3-2.
3. Buy some Sterzing’s potato chips to take back to Rochester.I found out at my reunion that one of my classmates (Gary Schmeiser) is a co-owner of this iconic company! How cool is that. The bag of Sterzing’s never lasts long but at least I didn’t eat all of them on the 14-hour car ride home. (Yes, I could take more than one bag home but if I ate them too often, then they wouldn’t taste so special when I do get some!)
You never know how something you write will resonate with a reader. Such was the case recently when I gave a copy of my book, Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy: A Memoir of 90 Years of Sutter Drug Co. , to a former colleague.
My husband, Gary, and I, were driving back to our home in Rochester, N.Y., from Florida, where we had a spent a few months. At the last minute, we decided to stop overnight in Winchester, Va., which just happens to be where my good friend, Maria Hileman Montgomery lives. She is a former Democrat and Chronicle colleague of mine, and now is the managing editor of the The Winchester Star newspaper. We were lucky that Maria and her husband, Roger, were available for dinner on such short notice. We had a great time catching up, especially since Maria and I had not seen each other in several years. I gave her a copy of my book, never dreaming that even though she had not visited Burlington, Iowa, let alone Sutter Drug, the story would touch a chord for her. She wrote this touching column, and it was published in The Winchester Star.
Localizing the universal
Before the 1960s and ‘70s, when people started flocking to strip malls and chain restaurants and, more recently, to “virtual” internet communities like Facebook, they often met at lunch counters in drug stores, diners and five-and-dimes.
My own parents met in 1947 in Washington, D.C. when he was a soda jerk and she was a customer at People’s drug store across 10th Street from Ford’s Theater.
One of my earliest and fondest childhood memories is of ordering mouth-watering buttered toast and “sunny side up” eggs on Sunday mornings in the late 1950s with my mother at a lunch counter in downtown Staunton after Mass at St. Francis of Assisi church.
A friend and former newspaper colleague of mine from Rochester, N.Y., Jane Sutter Brandt, has just published a book of memoirs about her family’s 90 years in the pharmacy business in Burlington, Iowa. Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather operated the Sutter Drug Co. in several locations in that city from 1902 to 1993, and the lunch counter was an intrinsic part of the business.
When she and her husband, Gary, stopped in Winchester and had dinner with us a couple weeks ago on their way back to Rochester from Florida, she gave me a signed copy of her self-published book “Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy.”
I started to read it this past weekend more out of devotion to Jane, who was managing editor of the Democrat and Chronicle during my half dozen years as metro editor there, than out of any real interest in the topic.
But after burying myself in the book for an afternoon, I came away impressed with how careful attention to historical detail and strong narrative writing can uncover the universal nature of so much of human experience.
While Sutter’s was a particularly local institution, I found threads of informational nostalgia that resonated in surprising ways with me. Her explanation of how Sutter’s carried Cara Nome cosmetics, for instance, took me back to conversations between my mother and father in the 1950s and ‘60s, when he would ask her what she wanted for her birthday or anniversary.
“Cara Nome,” she’d reply, rolling the ‘r’ expressively and lifting her eyes heavenward. I haven’t heard the phrase in years.
As Jane explains in her book, Cara Nome was a popular Rexall brand for high-end cosmetics. Her great-grandfather, Joseph R. Sutter, became a “Rexall agent” in 1907, meaning he held an exclusive franchise to sell the products in Burlington and West Burlington.
Rexall distributors displayed a distinctive bright orange and navy blue sign, and it was the name brand for products sold by United Drug Co. of New Jersey. Other Rexall products included Super Plenamin vitamins and Liggett’s $50,000 chocolates.
The word “Rexall” meant “king of all,” and was probably an allusion to the Rx used in prescriptions. Customers will recall the popular semi-annual Rexall One Cent sale when you could get a second item for a penny if you bought one.
Photos in the book show customers lined up the whole way up the city block and cramming the newly air-conditioned store and soda fountain when Sutter’s reopened after remodeling in 1949.
The photos show not only Cara Nome products and Kodak’s new Hawkeye cameras, but the gleaming “full-vision windows” on the display cases and the modern fluorescent lights.
In a chapter headed “Changing Times,” Jane describes the changes that came in the 1960s with the advent of chain pharmacies, costly prescription drugs and third-party prescriptions such as Medicaid. The death knell sounded in the 1980s when insurance companies forced customers to buy prescriptions from certain pharmacies and big-box retailers added pharmacies to their stores.
It is hard, in the end, not to bemoan the passing of the era of the independent drug store when you view it through the prism of such a long-time family business.
I found this cardboard in the Sutter Drug Store scrapbook that my great-aunt Ursula Sutter Schuetze compiled. The little newspaper clipping is the only printed reference we have to the first store, which was located at 311 N. Third in the Tama Building. (Although Joseph bought the store in 1902, he did not officially open it as Sutter Drug until 1903.)
The photo is of the interior of the first store. Notice how all the merchandise was behind glass doors or in cases, so the clerks had to get it out for the customer. Shopping wasn’t self-service like it is today!
Aunt Ursie was the youngest of four children that my great-grandfather Joseph Robert Sutter and his wife, Anna Schlacter Sutter, had. Being the youngest and the last to leave home, she was probably considered “the baby of the family.” Neither of her parents ever drove and so she drove them around in the car my great-grandfather owned. I recall her telling me that when she was about 18 years old, she drove herself and her mother all the way from Burlington, Iowa, to Boise, Idaho, so they could visit Gertrude Sutter Moore, the elder daughter. That would have been around 1923! I remember being amazed by that story. It probably took them at least a week to get there, given the roads and slower speeds of cars. My great-grandfather must have had a lot of confidence in his wife and daughter to let them take such a long trip by themselves.
My dad was born Dec. 8, 1925. He lived to be 87 and I think of him every day. In honor of my dad’s birthday, I’m writing about three life lessons he taught me. Of course, I learned much more than these three, but these are the ones on my mind today.
Don’t be a quitter. During the summer between my sophomore and junior year at Mizzou, I had a hard time finding a summer job in Burlington. I finally was hired to work at the local LaMont Limited plant down on Bluff Road. (Apparently now called LaMont Home.) The year was 1979, and the plant manufactured wicker bathroom accessories (hampers, shelving, armoires, etc.) that were popular then. I had to be at work at 7 a.m. (much too early for me as a college student who wanted to be out and about late). All the people working there were my parents’ age, so I felt out of place. I think my job had something to do with a staple gun. I came home after a couple days and that night, when Dad came home, I announced, “I’m quitting that job.” Of course I had no other work lined up. “No, you’re not,” Dad replied emphatically. I was so surprised I don’t think I even argued. My Dad seldom was so stern.
So I came up with a solution. The next day, I went into the office at LaMont, and asked if I could switch to the second shift. No problem. The following Monday, I reported to work at 3:30 p.m. and I got off at midnight. There were a lot of 20somethings working that shift, so I made some friends. (We occasionally went across the river to Downers nightclub in Gulfport when our shift ended — don’t tell my mother!) And best of all, I could sleep as late as I wanted each morning, and still fit in some sun-bathing time at the club pool. I’m glad I stuck with that job, because there were life lessons I learned there, but that’s a topic for another blog. Another lesson I learned was…
2. Do business with those who do business with you. As part of the family owning Sutter Drug, my dad made sure that when it came time for us to buy a product or service, we were buying it from merchants who did business at Sutter’s. I remember one day suggesting we buy something from someone (I don’t remember the details), and my dad said, “No, we’re buying it from (fill in the blank), because they do business at Sutter’s.” Oh. Now that I own Sutter Communications, I practice the same philosophy and I try to buy from local merchants and entrepreneurs as much as possible, even when it may cost more. And the third rule I learned…
3. Follow the Golden Rule. My dad led by example on this one. He was a quiet man, respectful of others and their opinions, and extremely kind. I seldom heard him complain or say anything negative about anyone. On the rare occasions when his temper flared at something we kids had done, we knew we had really screwed up. As an editor for many years, I tried to keep that Golden Rule in mind; some days I succeeded and other days I failed.
So, happy birthday to Joe. Thinking about you today, with a smile and a tear.
I got a surprise Facebook message from Bill Ewinger in Burlington recently. He was in the same class at St. Paul’s as my older sister, Tracey, when we were growing up.
Bill told me that he had found a newspaper article about a fire that happened in the basement of Sutter Drug Co. on Oct. 9, 1939. I didn’t know about that fire, and Bill was kind enough to mail to me a copy of the article. (He came upon it when he and a friend were going through microfilm at the Burlington Public Library.)
The headline of the article is “BAD START ON BLAZE DRIVE,” which made me think it was talking about a street called “Blaze Drive.” But the subhead is “Prevention Week Opened with Five Alarms Including $1,000 Loss.”
So the headline writer was trying to be clever with “Blaze Drive” but it didn’t work. As someone who has had to write headlines in her career, I cringed.
But here’s the meat of the article:
Burlington made anything but an auspicious start for Fire Prevention week, with five weekend alarms answered — including one at the Sutter Drug Co. store at Third and Jefferson streets this morning. The loss at the drug store, where there was a basement fire at 2:40 a.m. today, may reach $1,000, Fire Chief R.P. Collatt said. Both he and Joseph Sutter of the drug company were at loss to establish definite cause of the fire. Most of the loss, however, was from water.
Fire In Basement
The blaze, apparently starting under the basement steps at the extreme north end of the store, set off the sprinkler system in spouting water automatically sent in a fire alarm.
Mr. Sutter said all basement rubbish is kept in metal containers with lids, and was of the opinion a can of wax or paint may have been responsible. Only slight fire damage to the basement or stock was reported. The loss was covered by insurance.
The article goes on to document some other small blazes that happened around Burlington; two dump fires, one grass fire, and a car fire.
This wasn’t the first fire that has happened to Sutter Drug while in the Tama Building. The most dramatic one that I know of happened in 1915 and you can read my post about it here.
Two years ago as I was starting to research my book Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy, I met Russ Fry by chance in downtown Burlington, Iowa. He was one of several people who encouraged me to publish the book, telling me how people in Burlington love local history.
And Russ should know. He’s written a number of books and produced videos that have to do with local history. These include Des Moines County in the Civil War; Burlington, Iowa Bluff, Streams, and Ravines; Ride Around Historic North Hill; The Murder of Eunice Rockefeller, and The Hanging of the Hodges. You can check out his work at Burlington By The Book.
His documentary A Tour of Bluff Road: Burlington, Iowa was a nominee in the “Best Documentary Short” category of the 2016 Snake Alley Festival of Film, which is billed as “The Crookedest Film Festival in the World,” a tagline that I love.
One of his most recent books is Black Hawk’s Final Resting Place, where Russ’s diligent research reveals that history books were wrong about where the Sauk war chief is buried. It’s a fascinating read, and it has wonderful historical photos and maps. I ran into Russ recently at the Burlington Public Library, and he told me he’s working on an update of the story. I asked him if he’d answer a few questions for me for my blog, so here goes:
One of the more well-known figures in the history of Burlington, Iowa, is the Sauk war chief, Black Hawk. How did you get interested in writing about his final resting place?
I am always looking to uncover local historical events. I came across an 1891 newspaper article that contradicted what I had heard about Black Hawk, so I went back to primary sources and found out that the history books were wrong.
I know you have also become a documentary film maker and your short film on “A Tour of Bluff Road: Burlington, Iowa,” was a nominee in the Snake Alley Festival of Film 2016. How does producing a documentary fit in with writing about history? How did you go about learning how to make a documentary?
I model my books after Arcadia Press – pictures and captions. I model my documentaries after Ken Burns – still pictures and narration. I use the same pictures and verbal material for both books and documentaries. I go into detail in the books, because people can study what is presented. I put less detail in documentaries, because people have to understand the material as it passes before their eyes. However, in documentaries you can do more interesting things. In my “Black Hawk’s Final Resting Place” book, I present Black Hawk’s last speech in English. In the documentary version I have his speech spoken in the Sauk language with English subtitles. I learned how to make documentaries by watching them, and just making them. I like to think I am getting better as I go.
Of all the books you’ve written and documentaries you’ve produced, of which are you most proud or happy with?
I am most happy with “Black Hawk’s Final Resting Place.” It is not often a movie maker gets to correct 163 years of mistaken history.
I believe that all your books have been self-published. What advice would you give to an aspiring author about self- publishing?
I self-publish with print-on-demand. There is little up-front money involved. If you self-publish, you will have to do your own promotion. I do that with speaking engagements and Facebook. I am not getting rich, but I make enough to keep working on new projects.
This is the second time I’ve interviewed an author with Burlington ties; you can read my interview with Keith Schulz, author of the thriller Keepers of the Riverhere. I highly recommend this book; it reminded me of a Stephen King novel. It’s also carried at Burlington By The Book, as are many other good books by local authors or about local history.
If you know of an author with ties to Burlington that you’d like me to feature in my blog, please let me know!
I was cleaning out a storage bin and came across this empty blue bottle with a cork for a lid. I know it came from Sutter Drug, and I think it was one of those things I latched on to many years ago because I liked the blue color and the bottle has three sides to it.
I had completely forgotten about it. So I took a moment to read the labels and look up a few things.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Mercuric chloride is a very poisonous form of mercury. It is a type of mercury salt.” The article says it was sometimes used in antiseptics, and a label on this bottle says “Bernays Antiseptic.” It apparently contained tablets that were made up of mercuric chloride and citric acid. In fact, the third side of the bottle that doesn’t have a label on it has the word “Poison” etched into it.
What stood out to me, though, are the words “United Drug Co.” The Sutter Drug Stores all carried Rexall Brand products, which were the name brand products for United Drug Co.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons that my great-grandfather found success as the owner of pharmacies was that he decided in 1907 to become a “Rexall Agent.” Sutter’s stores were the only place in Burlington and West Burlington, Iowa, where you could buy Rexall products.
The semi-annual One-Cent sale was highly popular. You could buy one Rexall item at regular price and get the second for a mere penny.
I know many people around the country lived in towns that had Rexall drug stores in them, and they remember the bright orange and navy blue lettering.
June 20 is the wedding anniversary of my great-grandparents, Joseph Robert Sutter and Anna Schlacter Sutter. In 1945, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Burlington, Iowa.
They were married in 1895. My great-grandfather was 22 years old and Anna was one day shy of her 21st birthday. I don’t know how they met or how long they courted.
This is just another example of how I’d love to go back in time, be the fly on the wall, and just experience what their lives were like. Joe had been a registered pharmacist for just two years when they married and he was working at Witte Drug Store. It would be another seven years before he bought the Cochran’s Drug Store at 311 N. Third in the prestigious Tama Building.
By then, the Sutters had three children: Clarence Joseph, born in 1897; Gertrude Ida, born in 1898; Raymond Otto (my grandfather), born in 1900. My great-aunt Ursula was born in 1905.
The Sutters had a family celebration on June 20, 1945. My dad, Joe, was away in the service. But most the rest of the family was on hand: the couple’s four children, three spouses, and four of their six grandchildren. This photo was taken in the side yard of the home my great-grandfather had built at 1515 N. Eighth St. I’m sure Joe and Anna would be surprised but happy that the family business carried on until 1993, and that a little book written by their great-granddaughter has tried to capture the entrepreneurial spirit of the family patriarch.
I met fellow Burlington, Iowa native Keith Schulz on Facebook several months ago, when he wrote to me about a marble tabletop he had, which he had been told came from Sutter Drug. You can read my post about that here.
I discovered that Keith had written a novel called “Keepers of the River: A Tale of Terror Along the Mississippi River,” and I purchased a copy last year at Burlington By The Book. I just finished reading it, and I found it to be a real page-turner. It’s kind of a Stephen King-type horror novel, with realistic characters and surprising plot twists. I emailed Keith and asked him if he would answer a few questions about the novel and his writing process, and he obliged. Thanks, Keith! I recommend this book to anyone who likes a good mystery.
How did you come up with the idea of writing a horror story set along the Mississippi River? Did you hear stories about an island that was haunted?
Long story short, I had been attending the Iowa Writers Workshop summer program for a couple summers. I enjoyed the experience of writing fiction more than I was enjoying law practice and I got this notion of writing a creepy novel. We had bought this old house perched on a bluff in Burlington and there were parts of the town that I thought would make a good setting: the bluffs, the islands, the cemetery. So I decided to retire, move into the house and write.
I’m assuming that Bruders Landing is based on Burlington, Iowa. Can you talk about the ways the two resemble each other?
Bruders Landing is basically Burlington and most readers think they resemble each other. However, I moved some features around and embellished others. Big Island always intrigued me and it became Big Tow Island which I moved north for the story. Aspen Grove Cemetery became Walnut Grove which I moved to the bluff. I was always intrigued by the facades on the mausoleums in Aspen Grove, one of which I used, but the interior is pure fiction. The farmhouse exists south of Burlington with a hole in the basement. I heard about it but never saw the hole. I had a tour of a friend’s embalming room but I thought it lacked drama so the one in the story is pure fiction.
Did you base any of the characters in the book on people you know?
The character closest to a real person is (Undertaker) Raston Bruhl. The Prugh family has been in the funeral business in Burlington for 150 years so I borrowed their history. The two boys I created in my first course in fiction at Iowa and used them again. In the part of the story set in the 50s they are the age I was at the time so I relied on some memory. Sheila was the cousin of a boyhood friend but I created her personality. Mostly, though, I created the characters to serve the story.
Anything else you want to add about the book and writing it?
I wrote the novel in a highly disorganized fashion. The chapters were written randomly as episodes which occurred to me as something fun to write. For example, the funeral the two boys attend was the first episode I wrote. As I accumulated episodes I began to see a way they could become story. The fact that the story may work and be enjoyable to readers is the result of the input of the editor, a creative writing instructor in CA who taught at Iowa in the summer. She made it cohesive and told me how to discard about 200 pages.
A novel of its length is a lot of work, five-years worth trying to have the discipline to write three hours each afternoon. I’m finding it hard to do again.
I also am grateful to the small publisher that took it on, Coyote Press. An agent or publisher is virtually impossible for a first-time fiction writer to find. And Coyote is still selling it after a second printing.
Saturday, April 30, is Independent Bookstore Day! Please go to your favorite local bookstore, not a chain store, and have a great time.
Spend time browsing, pick up a gem of a book that you’ll never see at a big chain store, and buy it. Buy two or three.
The people who own and run these stores are awesome. The one I am most familiar with is in my hometown of Burlington, Iowa. It’s Burlington By The Book. I wrote a blog about its awesomeness a while back, and now I’m re-posting it here. Chris does a great job hosting special events and book signings, and he is probably the biggest cheerleader for downtown Burlington, Iowa.
So, head to a local bookstore on Saturday, and then tell me about your favorite store and favorite finds!