Rochester, Indiana 46975
|Published in The Rochester Sentinel February 5, 2002
The first opened there in 1860 and for each of the 142 years since, Rochester citizens have passed through the doorway at 724 Main Street to find a drug store. It is an astounding span of time at one location. No local establishment can come close to matching it, for Harry Webb’s Family Pharmacy today is serving a sixth generation of customers, reaching back to founder Asa Plank.
The longevity of this drug store locale has been marked by similar endurance among its proprietors. Plank owned it for 27 years, the Ruh family 46 years and the Baxter family 49 years. The store’s operators have been colorful, publicly energetic and touched by tragedy. Their histories are worth recording.
Asa K. Plank was a physician and a New York native who came to Indiana as an infant with his widowed mother. He began the practice of medicine in South Bend and was passing through Rochester by stagecoach about 1850 when the village caught his fancy. He set up his medical practice here and soon thereafter drifted into the drug business.
Asa opened his first drug store sometime around 1855 but it was not Rochester’s first, for Charles Henderson had that one earlier on the west side of the 400 block of Main Street. Plank’s was nearby and he later acquired Henderson’s.
In the mid-19th century Plank’s Drug Store advertised its services as “physician and dealer in drugs, medicines, oils, paints, dyestuffs, perfumery, boots and shoes, groceries, etc, etc.” Not so different from today’s pharmacies. Over the years Asa took on various partners, one being Jonathan Dawson who later founded another longtime pharmacy on the corner of Eighth Street where today is First Source bank.
Asa was a highly respected citizen and a committed patriot. In the summer of 1862, at a crucial time for Indiana during the Civil War, he personally recruited a company of local soldiers and became its captain. He then left his business for four months and led the company into the 87th Infantry Regiment of the Union army, staying with it through the battle of Perryville in Kentucky.
It was in the summer of 1860 that Plank first occupied 724 Main Street. That space became the north half of the new Mammoth Building, a two-story frame structure, and the store remained there for almost two decades. In the 1870s came a downtown building boom and so in August, 1878, the Mammoth gave way to the present brick building, called the Central Block. Plank reoccupied the north half with what then became Central Drug Store.
Plank continued as proprietor until his death in 1887, ending a local retail career of nearly 40 years. His great-granddaughters, Mary Moore and Margaret Herkless, live here today.
Upon Plank’s death Alex Ruh (say it rue) came from Peru in 1888 to begin the era of his Blue Drug Store with its blue-painted front. The Ruhs held forth for 46 years and it was under Alex that the drug store installed tables and a soda fountain counter. It became a gathering place for the high school set and popular with everyone for new refreshments such as ice cream sodas, flavored Cokes and phosphates and ice cream sundaes.
Alex was a lively, personable man who became widely known as the competent, excitable manager of the Rochester Red Fellows baseball team. At the turn of the 19th century it was one of northern Indiana’s outstanding independent clubs and became immensely popular here.
When Alex died in 1933 the store was inherited by his popular 46-year-old son Frederick, who had joined the business as a young man. By then Frederick was of delicate health, having been treated for five years at various institutions for mental instability. Less than a year after his father’s death, on January 25, 1934, he chose the IOOF cemetery gravesite of his beloved father as a place to take his own life.
Frederick’s widow, Edith, continued the family ownership for four years until 1938, when she sold to flamboyant, flawed Charles Dyche, who was to flash like a meteor across the Rochester scene. Dyche was tall and handsome, a 40-year-old Texas bachelor who owned a drug store in Hobart before he became a drug salesman, met and made a deal with Mrs. Ruh.
Dyche took over in October, 1938, and soon affiliated the pharmacy with the Walgreen chain. Two years later, in 1940, he took on a second business, auto sales. With Mrs. Bessie Bowers of Peru and Ralph Wall of Hobart as partners he reopened a Ford agency at Sixth and Main Streets as Dyche Motors.
In a short time Dyche had become prominent, admired and respected in the community and seemed to be on top of the world. But he was extravagant, overly fond of the good life and had an irrepressible eye for the ladies. On Tuesday, June 17, 1941, he failed to appear at either of his businesses. A search of his home adjacent to the present Elks Lodge at Lake Manitou revealed nothing.
Four days later, Saturday, a woodsman named Max Nicodemus found Dyche’s decomposing body at the base of a tree in the woods (long afterward called Dead Man’s Woods) about a mile south of his house. It is east of today’s Country Club Drive South, beyond the Alan Burke residence. I knew the spot well for this was my first field assignment for The News-Sentinel (and a most unpleasant one).
Dyche had been shot through the roof of his mouth with a .38 calibre revolver that was clasped in his right hand. He left no note. Dr. Dean Stinson, coroner, ruled the death a suicide but the sudden, inexplicable death spawned a whirlwind of local rumors, including theories of murder for hire. Private investigators were employed by Mrs. Bowers, it was said, without turning up any damning evidence.
Today it is considered that Dyche brought about his own end, probably because his excessive lifestyle had led to insurmountable financial pressures on his businesses and because his romantic entanglements had become unmanageable. As in all suicides, he took his motives with him.
Dyche’s successor as owner, Ernie Baxter, was Dyche’s antithesis. He came here from Walton, where for six years he had operated a pharmacy. Tireless in the conduct and promotion of his pharmacy, he became a leading citizen and was just as tireless in contributing to community development.
A 16-year member of Woodlawn Hospital’s original board of trustees, Baxter saw the hospital through its growing pains and the first of its expansions. He was responsible mainly for creating 300 off-street parking spaces, to encourage Main Street shopping, with funds his committee solicited annually from merchants. He was given a Distinguished Citizen Award by the Chamber of Commerce in 1982. Ernie retired from the business in 1981 after 40 years in Rochester, his death coming in 1997.
His son Parke began managing the store in 1960 and assumed total control in 1981. Parke also continued the family commitment to civic duty, achieving the Chamber of Commerce’s Community Service Award in 1993. He has been a member of the Rochester school board, president of Kiwanis Club and still serves as a director for FEDCO, the local economic development agency; for the county park and for a conservation group. Parke put his own mark on the business, adding a lunch room and creating major expansions, one to the west in 1961 and a significant enlargement in 1972 with purchase of the adjoining Felts cigar store.
The present owner, Harry Webb, was hired by Parke as a pharmacist and in 1990, five years later, bought the store. Webb is a Monticello native who worked at Hively’s Pharmacy there. Failing in his ambition to buy that store, he was lured to Rochester by Parke and found his destiny. Harry is a member of the city board of works and is active in the retail merchants association. He remodeled the store extensively in 1994, spun off a Radio Shack department to its own location across the street in 2000 and in 1995 purchased the pharmacy in Akron.
Because he is sensitive to the long history of his business, Webb has retained in the lunch area Parke Baxter’s display of eight photos from the store’s past, the first taken in 1880. It’s quite evident that the 142-year stretch of drug store occupancy at 724 Main Street will continue for Rochester folks quite a while longer.