Sam's Drugstore in Cambridge City
By Bob Hunt:
Cambridge City, Indiana was founded on the National Road in 1836, but in 1846, everyone was focused on the newest transportation system that had just arrived in town. This innovation was already widespread in the East, and promised to revolutionize the movement of goods and commerce. No more reliance on the old horse and wagon, and bumpy roads. The new way would be smooth, carry heavier loads than the traditional wagons could ever imagine, and (for Cambridge City) was directly linked to the busy city and strategic shipping point, Cincinnati.
The Whitewater Canal system ultimately never lived up to the hype and promise, but at this moment, Cambridge City enjoyed the optimism of being hooked up to not one, but two major transportation systems, a major competitive advantage. In the short term, it only got better. In 1849, with the discovery of gold in California, the largest land migration in the history of the United States moving West along the National Road was only getting bigger.
Historic situations like Cambridge City in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s drew people to take large financial risks to try and cash in for the future. Sam Hoshour was one of those individuals. Hoshour wanted to open a drugstore in Cambridge City to take advantage of the large numbers of travelers and burgeoning commerce. In order to insure success and competitive advantage in a city he felt was on the cusp of huge growth and success, his drugstore would be the finest and fanciest Indiana had ever seen. His business would impress customers with magnificent special made cabinetry from the finest woodworking artisans in Cincinnati, whose work could rival their peers in New York City and the elsewhere in the East.
Sam opened his store in 1852, with the large cabinets from Cincinnati delivered by none other than canal flatboats. The beautiful woodwork did not disappoint, it was indeed the finest, best appointed drugstore in all of Indiana. The furnishings were stunning, and Sam’s store was a hit. Stories of the day reported that the solid walnut and ash cabinets with beautiful striped ash/walnut countertops were even complimented by matching floors. Local legend has it that Sam would watch and chase the cowboys out of his store whenever they came in wearing spurs, because they caused scratches. Pretty fancy for a business located virtually on the frontier.
For a time business was good in Cambridge City. In just a few years though, the railroad also came to town, and with it, major changes. The canal was quickly relegated to the past, and transportation by traditional horse and wagon along the National Road was no match for the new “iron” horse. Sam’s Drugstore, for all its finery, was in the same situation as all of the other businesses in Cambridge City. Everyone suffered, because travelers and commerce could now travel straight through from the East headed to Indianapolis and points west. People on the trains didn’t have to stop every few miles to rest as they had with the horses and wagons. Cambridge City would never grow into the large metropolis that Sam and his fellow businessmen had once imagined.
Despite the advent of trains and fewer travelers, the drugstore continued on. First under Calloway, Sam’s partner, and then ownership was eventually transferred to the Grigsby family. The Grigsby’s sincerely appreciated and protected the particular unique elegance of the drugstore, and especially the cabinets. Over the years some changes were inevitable, but kept minimal. Finally, in the 1960’s Rolla Grigsby had to move Sam Hoshour’s magnificent cabinets out of the store forever, to make way for the modern age.
Today, it’s tempting to try and imagine what Sam Hoshour’s Cambridge City drugstore on the National Road must have looked like back in its heyday. Buildings are emptied and re-used over time however, and indeed, the original building that housed the drugstore in Cambridge City is an antique store today. Although a very nice antique store, no visible evidence of the magnificent business that Hoshour once operated there remains.
How grand it must have been to walk into that wonderful space, with the finest apothecary cabinets money could buy. Surrounded by glistening glass doors, hundreds of apothecary jars, and every kind of fascinating advertising posters. Shelves were filled with showy and outlandish patent medicine and cures, and candy beckoned everyone to spend a few cents for something sweet. The store would have also sold from a large inventory of non-medicine items including household cleaners, curtain hangers, tobacco products, dental hygiene, reading glasses, paint, you name it. In many ways, not all that different from their modern equivalents.
Once the cabinets had finally exhausted their commercial usefulness, and were removed to storage, there were collectors and antique dealers interested in acquiring them. Grigsby was approached several times, but always resisted selling. One particularly persuasive party however heard about the cabinets, and made his way to Cambridge City. He was the one who finally struck a deal with Grigsby to purchase the entire interior of the old drugstore from the barn where it was stored.
Because of this remarkable buyer, and his plans, the story of Sam Hoshour’s National Road drugstore and its magnificent cabinets was not destined to end in Grigsby’s Cambridge City barn, but would be re-born. The purchaser was August Hook, and his family happened to control one of the largest and most successful drugstore chains in the United States in the mid 1960’s, Hook’s Drugstore Inc. Hooks was founded in 1900 by John Hook, on the near Southeast side of Indianapolis, and had grown from a single location, to a large and dominant regional chain of several hundred stores, centered and headquartered in Indianapolis. Hook’s Son August (Bud), and some of his senior management had developed an interest in historic pharmacy, and they had an idea for a company sponsored promotion to help celebrate the Sesquicentennial (150 year anniversary) of Indiana Statehood in 1966.
With the cooperation of the Indiana State Fair Board, Hook struck a deal to utilize an underused smaller building on the grounds for a temporary 3 month exhibit of historic pharmacy featuring the re-assembled interior of Hoshour’s drugstore as its centerpiece. The exhibit was in fact a smash hit at the 1966 Fair. It won the Governor’s prize for best corporate contribution to the Indiana sesquicentennial, and drew huge crowds. Visitors loved the old drugstore, whose cabinets had been filled with authentic antiques, and placed in a space that closely approximated the size and feel of the original. People loved the “old drugstore” so much, that Hook’s decided to keep it open indefinitely, and use it as an ongoing company promotion.
Today, more than 160 years after their construction, Hoshour’s original vision in ornate drugstore cabinetry for Cambridge City, Indiana, is operated as Hook’s Drugstore Museum and Soda Fountain. The museum has even outlived the 1994 demise of benefactor and supporter Hook Drugs Inc., and gone far beyond its original 3 month plan. The fixtures and furnishings are today owned by a non-profit group whose mission it is to continue the legacy of this Indiana icon which has become an institution at the Indiana State Fair. Dedicated volunteers, donations and modest profits from sales of ice cream sodas, candy, and nostalgic gifts allow this venerable museum to continue forward on its improbable journey, much to the delight of more than 60,000 annual visitors. Hoshour’s fine cabinets from his Cambridge City drugstore are still recognized as the keystone part of one of the best exhibits of its kind anywhere in the nation. Since being installed at the Fairgrounds, well over 2 million people have visited this remarkable re-creation of a 19th Century Indiana Drugstore, more than any other collection of this type in the world. You may have even visited the Hook’ Drugstore, but never knew the Indiana National Road connection, most people don’t. The next time you come in, just imagine a time before even railroads crossed the State, when Indiana was still very young. High-tech transportation was a flat boat towed by mules on an elaborate (but slow) canal system. It’s not even hard to imagine Sam Hoshour coming around the corner at any moment, just in case some cowboy comes in off the National Road and fails to remove their spurs. Woe be unto them!
Hooks Drugstore Museum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds is open during the Indiana State Fair, during selected events during the year, and by special appointment or reservation. http://www.hooksmuseum.org