Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of a column published Sept. 29.
I know many of you recognize the big old three-story building in downtown Pawcatuck that’s been there since the late 1800s and for years was the home of Higgins Pharmacy. The Central Theater was nestled against the building until it was torn down a long time ago.
Mel’s Downtown Creamery now occupies the ground floor of the Broad Street building... but once upon a time it housed the busy drug store...
If ghosts of decades past could speak, they would tell you of pharmacy owner C. Leo Higgins, a family man who lived with his wife, Marie, and six children, J. Leo, Francis, John, Marie (Reedy), Pat and Bill, on Lester Avenue — slightly more than a stone’s throw away.
Peggy Pelters Hathaway worked at the store after high school, and that’s where we begin — with her recollection of a young self reigning over the greeting card section. “Hallmark cards were my specialty,” she recalled in the 1989 story she wrote.
“In my place of work at Higgins Pharmacy, we have a lunch counter or ‘fountain,’ as it is sometimes called. There are two very special ladies who run this counter. Their names are Rosie (Lidestri Gomes) and Josie (Fisher). They are both Italian and have quick tongues and feisty personalities. People from all over town come in to eat or just have a cup of coffee and watch the ‘Rosie and Josie’ show. They insult and kid and pick on one another like rival siblings, and give the customers a good laugh.
“The second part of the lunch counter is the regular customers who frequent the store daily... There is ‘Monroe,’ who takes his coffee black and reads the paper, page for page, while talking nonstop. There are Joe and Rocco, who pal around together, and are always waiting at the back door when we open.
“There is ‘Hunk’ (Williams), who likes his hard roll toasted, and brings us fresh ‘veggies’ from his garden in the summer. Our local attorney (Howard Crouch) comes in every afternoon and has his usual grilled cheese... This is but a few of the cast of characters who are there daily, and if one is missing for more than a day, we become worried that they might be ill...
Peggy noted that on Friday nights the “ladies from the Washington Trust came for supper,” because that’s the night the homemade beans baked by the pharmacist’s wife, Marie, became bean sandwiches for 15 cents apiece. Marie’s daughter, also named Marie... remembers providing the baked beans for the shop after her mother retired...
Barbara Hawkins Mehringer, who worked there in 1951-53, recalled the ladies from McCormick’s Department Store were also regulars on Friday night, when all the downtown stores were open late... Ernie Lopes was a handyman who also drove the “Medicine Dropper,” (a Volkswagen bug) to accommodate customer shut-ins...
Larry O’Keefe, author and publisher of the St. Michael Parish book told us, “There were many St. Michael’s families who were merchants in the local area... They often did many little kindnesses for our people, especially for the children.”
Larry told us about one of his experiences: “When I was a kid, I’d go to Higgins Pharmacy to buy birthday and Mother’s Day gifts for my mother. One of her favorite gifts was a box of candy, which was a treat that she rarely had. She loved Russell Stover candies, but my youthful budget usually determined that she’d have to survive with the less costly Candy Cupboard.
“One particular Mother’s Day, I brought a box of Candy Cupboard to J. Leo Higgins for purchase. He said, ‘Your mother likes Russell Stover better, Larry.’ I quickly said that I couldn’t afford them. ‘How much do you have?’ he asked. I showed him my inadequate handful of coins. ‘Hmm,’ Leo said, ‘That’s just about enough … with a nickel to spare. Now, take this over to Reedy and have her gift wrap it for you.’ My mother got her high-priced candy that Mother’s Day, courtesy of the Higgins family.”
I have a grateful remembrance of Higgins Pharmacy as well. When one of my infant granddaughters was suffering from congestion, I called J. Leo about a vaporizer. He promised he would deliver one himself after work. And he did.
Gloria Russell is a columnist for The Sun and was a reporter for 45 years.