Growing Up in Britton, Okla.

Postcard from Britton

Topeka Capital-Journal

In these times of economic turmoil, stock market calamities and energy crises, I enjoy calling a time-out to remember the simple life in Britton, Okla., where I grew up. Sometimes I think the only person in Britton who ever worried was my mother, who always was worrying about something.

Maybe she had a right to worry.  We moved to Britton in the late 1920s when my dad bought a drug store there. His timing wasn’t exactly ideal. Before he could get established in the town of about 2,000, there was the “Crash of ’29,” when the market collapsed, followed by the Great Depression.

Britton survived both. There were some unemployed men in town, but pretty soon President Roosevelt’s WPA “made work” programs came along, and everyone who wanted to work could, and had a little money to spend.

The store got off to a good start because it had the Post Office in the back end of it, and because my dad had a “grand opening” special of a double-dip ice cream cone for a nickel, still going on 10 years later.  Once he started the bargain cones, there was no way to stop them without upsetting customers.

Britton, believe it or not, was a two-drug store town, which was one too many. Dad couldn’t afford to rile anyone, because Dave McLemore’s pharmacy was at the other end of Main Street, and eager to pick up strays.

We probably weren’t all that well off, but I thought we were, even though my mom would tell me and my two older brothers she was worried about the store and about paying for the house at 100 E.  Stewart that we bought for $2,500.  I didn’t worry about it, since that kind of money was beyond my comprehension.

We had just moved back to Oklahoma from Wyoming, and Dad was selling chocolates for the Eline Candy Co. in Oklahoma City when he found the drug store opportunity in Britton.

The house in Britton was the first the family owned, and the second we lived in that had an indoor toilet.

Our first indoor privy was in the house we rented when we arrived in Britton.  My older brother, Dan, showed it to me and middle brother Courtney, and we celebrated by using it, all at the same time.

As we finished, Dan said, “I got dibs on flushing it,” and he did, and we all stood and watched the thing work, and marveled at what God and man had wrought. My turn to flush it came later.

I worked at the store as a car hop, mostly carrying those double-dips from the fountain to the curb. At one point, Dad added to their appeal by going to chocolate cake cones, which meant we were delivering the cones to the curb for a nickel apiece, and probably losing at least that much on them.

When Dad stopped the cake cones customers were upset, and they unloaded their gripes on me. What I learned as a car hop is that it’s pretty dumb to give away what you’re also trying to sell, and it’s even dumber to try to make it work by hopping cars for 10 cents an hour.

Another mistake Dad made was letting a good salesman sell him a rack of neckties, pointing out that all the good drug stores were doing it. The ties lasted until George Ward, who owned the dry goods store across the street, saw them.

I happened to be around when he came over for his usual afternoon ice cream cone and spotted the haberdashery. He did a slow burn, and then said to Dad, “Dan, if you don’t get rid of those ties, I swear to God I’m going to start selling cough syrup, candy bars and cigars.” When he left he was carrying the ties, having bought them at cost.

It was a splendid example of how easily differences can be settled in a town with no lawyers.

Art Hobbs’ grocery store occupied the other half of the brick building we were in, so we had rats big enough to saddle.  Dad fought them, and one of them died in an almost inaccessible place under the backbar.  While working to remove it, Dad poured a couple of bottles of Evening in Paris perfume around the area, and the stench, from essence of dead rat and cheap perfume, was unbearable.

On an average day, the drug store took in around $80.  Ninety dollars was a super day, and $100 was reason enough to drive to the two-mile corner east of town for him to have a beer.

Security was no problem. Dad put the money in a cigar box and took it home. If we had no car at the store, we’d walk home, or town marshal Leland Corbett would take us. There was no crime in Britton.

What a life. I was the envy of every kid in town because I could fix myself an ice cream cone, or a shake or a root beer float, almost any time I felt like it. I was lucky. Still am.

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