After the sudden closing of Smith-Caldwell Drugstore on August 17, 2023, nostalgia grew for the years past with the historic pharmacy, soda fountain, boutique and registry. Mark Smith of Benton, Arkansas was gracious to share his account of the history of his family’s Smith-Caldwell Drugstore:
With all the talk of the recent closing of Smith-Caldwell, my family would like to give a few facts and a brief history of the drugstore.
The founders of Smith-Caldwell are the 2 men pictured below, the one on the left is W.C. “Will” Caldwell, our great grandfather, and the same person Caldwell Elementary School is named for. The other person is Orlando Smith, Will Caldwell’s son-in-law and our grandfather.
Will Caldwell became a pharmacist in 1895. Back then there were no pharmacy schools, so to become a pharmacist, a person would do an internship with a licensed pharmacist until he knew the profession. He did his internship with his uncle. He would then work for Bush, Parker, and Hockersmith l Pharmacies, all located in downtown Benton. This time period is during 1895-early 1900s.
Back then, all pharmacies had a soda fountain. Hockersmith Drugstore was the first store in Benton to introduce the ice cream cone. People did not know they were supposed to eat the cone along with the ice cream, so after finishing the ice cream, customers would say, “Here’s your ice cream container back Will.” Because of his friendly trusting demeanor, Mr. Caldwell became known as Uncle Will to everyone. People became so reliant on Uncle Will, they used his medical advice almost as much as they did the local doctors. This period of time is during the 1900s-1920s.
Orlando Smith married Will Caldwell’s daughter Hazel in 1934. He worked in the oil fields, causing them to move quite frequently. When their son Charles (our dad) was born in 1939, the family moved from West Texas to Benton. Orlando was called on by the US government during WWII to work at a location in Oak Ridge, TN where they were putting together components for the Atomic Bomb. Meanwhile, Will Caldwell was working for Hockersmith Pharmacy, located where the Burger Shack is today, next to the Royal Theater. This period of time is the 1930s-mid 1940s.
When Orlando moved to Benton after WWII ended, Mr. Hockersmith was ready to sell his store, so Orlando Smith and his father-in-law, Will Caldwell, bought Hockersmith Pharmacy and changed the name to Smith-Caldwell. So Smith-Caldwell Pharmacy was born in 1946 and the location was the same as the old Hockersmith Drugstore, next to the Royal Theater on Market Street.
One of the biggest attractions in the early days for the drugstore was the soda fountain. It was a frequent meeting place for lunch for local business owners and a popular hangout for teenagers. According to Hazel Smith and Arlene Rainey, the fountain specialties were grilled cheese sandwiches, chili, and milkshakes.
Our grandmother, Hazel Smith, told us many times how they thought they were going to lose the store because people who could not pay with money often paying with eggs, butter, and milk. There were many times when customers couldn’t pay at all, but Will and Orlando would say, “I can’t let someone sick not be helped, especially a child, so just take the medicine.”
Will Caldwell died in 1950. Orlando had to hire licensed pharmacists since he was not one himself. Several pharmacists would come and go through the 1950s and into the early 1960s. In 1963, he hired Don Hall, who was a classmate and friend of Charles. Don would later become a partner in Smith-Caldwell and remain a pharmacist there into the early to mid-2000s.
Our dad, Charles Smith, began working at Smith-Caldwell in 1964, during his sophomore year in Pharmacy School. He started full time in 1966 after graduation and our grandfather Orlando Smith retired. Now the pharmacists at Smith-Caldwell were the ones that most everyone remembers, Charles Smith and Don Hall. The store would stay in its original location until 1971, when it moved to Main Street, where the Saline County Circuit Court is today. It was the first drugstore in Benton with no soda fountain.
Charles carried on the same qualities as his father and grandfather with the same genuine concern for people’s well-being. He also had his customers seek advice as their pharmacist, doctor, or even veterinarian. Dad died in 2005, and during his visitation, many people told our family how he did so much for them, giving medical advice, what to do for their pets or livestock, but mainly how he showed compassion when they could not pay for their medicine.
One guy shared his story of how he was new in town and came to Smith-Caldwell to get a prescription filled for his daughter. The medicine was really expensive, so expensive he said he could not afford it. He said our dad looked at the prescription and knew how important it was for his daughter to take the medicine. Charles told him, “Just take the medicine, pay for it when you can.” The man said, “I was a stranger in town, he didn’t know me, and he was willing to give me that medicine. I was a forever customer and friend to your dad after that.”
Seeing that none of his sons were going into pharmacy, Dad sold Smith-Caldwell in 1997, after being a pharmacist there for 33 yrs. Lots of people have asked or wondered why none of us went into pharmacy. We saw the behind-the-scenes events of running the store, liking seeing him get up at 2 or 3 in the morning to go fill a prescription, the store being open 12-13 hours a day 7 days a week, only closing on Thanksgiving and Christmas and still having people call the house to get him to open for whatever they needed. We all decided to go in different directions than the pharmacy business.
After selling the store, Charles continued to work there for about another year. He could see the new ownership had a different philosophy from the original Smith-Caldwell, so he retired for good in 1998.
Smith-Caldwell was open for 77 years (1946-2023) but the reality is it has actually been gone for about 26 years from the original family ownership. Everything had changed, the only thing that remained the same was the name Smith-Caldwell. Dad regretted not retiring that name when the family left the pharmacy business in 1997.
We have had a lot of people ask us why Smith-Caldwell went out of business. We really don’t know any more than anyone else. To our family, it has been closed for a long time.
So, there you have it, a few facts and a short history on one of Benton’s icons, Smith- Caldwell Drugstore.