Mary Terry serves customers Ardell Smith and Dennis Dyerly circa 1966. Photo courtesy Owl Drug Store.
Mary Terry serves customers Ardell Smith and Dennis Dyerly circa 1966. Photo courtesy Owl Drug.

The old-fashioned drugstore and soda fountain is a disappearing institution. Once the meeting place of small Texas towns, the local pharmacy often doubled as the general store and lunch counter. Now, only a handful remain in business.

One such place that still exists is Owl Drug in the town of Coleman, located in north-central Texas about 50 miles south of Abilene.

Located downtown on Commercial Avenue, Owl is the second-oldest drugstore still in operation in the state. It opened in 1923 and is currently owned by retired pharmacists Jim and Linda Caldwell, who bought it from the original owners in 1976, and their daughter Cathy Allen. Along with the pharmacy, the space has a boutique filled with kitchenware, baby items, clothing, jewelry, essential oils, Texas roasted coffee, and other gift merchandise.

The heart of Owl Drug is—and has always been—the soda fountain. I learned this from my mother, who lived in Coleman when she was in elementary school in the 1950s. She fondly remembers going to the Owl for a soda fountain treat. She would sit on the vinyl barstools and watch the sweet concoctions being made by the soda jerk, as the person who made the ice cream sodas was called back in the day. Her favorite was the Black Cow—a chilled malt glass filled with shaved ice, milk, and chocolate syrup.

Fast-forward more than six decades, and Owl Drug has been updated but retains the same look and character of its early years. High shelves around the store hold nearly a century of memories in the vintage memorabilia donated by customers. Sodas, milkshakes, floats, and sundaes are still made the old-fashioned way, using syrups and hand mixers. The original Black Cow is still on the menu, along with the famous Owl Burger, which has been served since the very beginning. (Insider tip: If you correctly count all the owls in the store, you get a free Owl burger.)

Owner-operator Allen, who has worked at the store for 30 years, says the bestselling item on the menu is the Owlvis Burger, with grilled onions and bacon topped with their “secret sauce” that’s both spicy and sweet. It’s named in honor of Elvis Presley, whose lifelike statue in the store has been the star of many a visitor’s photo

During a COVID-19 lockdown, the pharmacy remained open while the store took advantage of a six-month closure to do some renovations, including the addition of a stunning antique bar that came from a shuttered pharmacy in North Carolina. Built in 1910, the large wooden piece is mirrored, with stained glass and lights, and has as its centerpiece Owl’s soda fountain. “The owner wanted it to continue to do its job,” Allen says.

As you’d expect, the kitchen staff, affectionately called the “Owlettes,” is a friendly group, treating every customer like family, whether they’re a first-time visitor or a local who comes in every week. One of Allen’s favorite parts of working at the Owl is seeing parents and grandparents bringing their kids back to share the experience they’d had as a child.

“The most used word we hear is ‘magical’ … taking so many back to a simpler, kinder time,” Allen says. “Our heart is in the Owl and we love our customers. We love the history, we love sharing the soda fountain experience with others.”

A waitress hold a plate with a large salad and stands in front of the life-size Elvis statue at Owl Drug.
A waitress stands before the drugstore's popular Elvis statue. Photo courtesy Owl Drug.

Visit these other historic soda fountains around Texas

Star Drug Store, Galveston

This is the place that has the Owl beat as the oldest drugstore in Texas. Since 1917, it has served ice cream treats along with breakfast and lunch. (It’s worth noting that it had to close between 1998 to 2001 after a fire. So Owl gets top billing as oldest in continuous operation.)

Jefferson General Store, Jefferson

Since the 1870s, this store has served as a hardware and general store, and it has an authentic soda fountain with a jukebox and games.

Fort Davis Drug Store, Fort Davis

In the foothills of the West Texas mountains, this place has a cafe and old-fashioned soda fountain in a building dating to 1913. The 22-foot soda fountain bar is original.

Nau’s Enfield Drug, Austin

Opened in 1951, this is the capital city’s only original, full-service drugstore. The soda fountain serves breakfast and lunch, and some killer ice cream floats.

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