The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Strasburg Virginia's First Pharmacist - A Personal Reminiscence

By Bender B. Kneisley © 1986
As told to his daughter, Nancy K. Costain

Issue: February, 1986

The old Strasburg Pharmacy.The old Strasburg Pharmacy.

Charles Luther Kneisley was born in Woodstock [Virginia] in 1869, the eldest of eight children. His father was Lewis Kneisley and his mother, Catherine Anderson. In his early teens he worked as a general helper and clerk at the Bernadotte Schmitt Pharmacy in his home town. Later, in his twenties he was given the Certificate of Pharmacy, having learned and acquired the training necessary in those days. Pharmacy schools had not been started in Virginia as yet.

The Woodstock pharmacy was owned and managed by Bernadotte Schmitt and his son N.B. Schmitt. When B. Schmitt was partially retired his son took over the reins. Mr. N.B. Schmitt also started the Strasburg Pharmacy and named Charles Kneisley the manager. Before that time Strasburg had no pharmacy as such. A Doctor Brown had his office with some drug supplies on hand, but it could not be called a pharmacy. Being well-trained Charles Kneisley made quite a success in managing the first pharmacy in Strasburg.

In 1891 Charles Kneisley married Nary Grace Balthis of Strasburg. The couple made their home in the pharmacy building on Main Street in Strasburg. The second floor and two rooms in the rear of the first floor comprised their living quarters. The upstairs consisted of four rooms, closets, and a long hallway. Another upstairs room and bath were subsequently added to the apartment. Three Kneisley children were born in that drugstore apartment.

The only supply of water in 1891 was from a cistern outside near the kitchen. Strasburg did not have city water works until 1903. When that special day arrived a big celebration occurred replete with bands, a parade, and contests.

My first cousin, Tom Balthis, come from Charlottesville and entered the shoe contest along with me. I was nine years old at time. All the boys took off their shoes and they were piled up about 100 yards away. The first one to find his shoes and return to the starting line won the prize. As I recall, Tom won. We also participated in a greased pig contest.

My father had a big day of business at the soda fountain during this celebration. Drug stores, at that time were installing fountains where they served soft drinks, ice cream sundaes, and coca cola.

When I became ten my father let me attend fountain. I thought I had really arrived as I donned a white jacket and served customers from behind the counter. There were stools and several table-chair combinations for the customers.

We made our own ice cream in a ten gallon freezer, run by a small gasoline engine. The ice came from our ice house in the back garden. River ice was brought in by a four horse team from a place in the river where the harvest point had been established. Then sawdust was used to pour on the packed ice and keep it all summer. It was necessary to get a certain amount from the ice house each day, wash it off, and crush it in order to help the freezer temperature. My sister and I always begged for the dasher which was a huge one in a ten gallon container. The milk and cream were purchased from local residents, and it was one of my jobs to pick up the milk and cream from these various places. Later, a dairy was started by a Mr. Ramey and eventually we bought all our milk and cream from one source. The ice cream was packed in a cabinet in metal containers with ice all around to keep the ice cream from melting.

Our drug store had shelves on one side for the drugs and there were drawers which contained some of the powdered articles. The liquid drugs were kept on the shelves with glass stoppers in the bottles. These drugs were the tinctures, the aqua, the acids and other liquid drugs. Our drugstore also sold spices and herbs.

The prescription counter was in the rear with a furniture front and mirror facing the outward store. The counter had a place for scales to weigh the various drugs going into capsules or masses or to be dissolved in a liquid. There was also a drawer for mortars and pestles, empty bottles and corks. The mortar and pestle was used quite a bit in those days to powder the drugs going into the prescriptions.

One day Mr. N.B. Schmitt came to check on the store. He and my father were in the prescription department as my father was using the mortar and pestle. A customer came in, and my father left to wait on him and subsequently returned. Mr. Schmitt thereupon retorted, "Charles, when you leave the mortar and the pestle, the handle of the pestle should be resting on the southeast side of the mortar." Needless to say, my father was quite taken back by this admonition. (This story has been handed down by many of the drug clerks and pharmacists who since worked in my father's office.)

In 1906 my father bought out Mr. Schmitt's interest and then was full owner of the store. He previously owned 1/3 of the business. My father showed his good business sense in that he knew the pure selling of drugs and prescriptions would not carry a drugstore in Strasburg very far. So he had instituted the soda fountain. He also sold good chocolate candy from a glass showcase and oranges and lemons at Christmas time. A stationery counter provided paper for business and social needs and he also had a silver counter showcase form which he sold various silver products like spoons, knives and forks, etc. One part of the store was stocked with patent medicines, the ones that people were using in those days like Lydia Pinkham and Rexall products. They were sold in liquid, powder, or ointment forms.

One day, while clerking in the store, a Reverend Watts, retired Methodist minister came into the store and purchased a supply of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound. After several weekly purchases of the same medicine by Reverend Watts, I asked my father, "Dad, this Lydia Pinkham's is for women, isn't it?"

"Yes, son, but if you'll look on the package at the ingredients you will see that there is a low percentage of alcohol in it."

Of course, the herbs in the bottle were harmless, but the good old minister would get a little boost when taking a tablespoon or so!

My father was methodical and systematic in the handling of his pharmacy. And he was well aware that if you did not have what the patient or customer asked for - no sale, period. For example, one time I forgotten to put on the "want" list a certain kind of medicine and unfortunately a patient came in and asked for it.

"You do no business when you are out of what the patient wants my father told me in stern terms.

After that I never forgot.

Charles Kneisley, Strasburg's first pharmacist was a very respected man of his community. He was Lutheran, treasurer of his church, member of the church council and regular attendant. He was also devoted to his family. As he was close to his business he opened up the store at 6 a.m. and closed it at 10 p.m. during the week. On Sundays he was on call for emergency medicine. He was quite close to Dr. Mackall Bruin, a surgeon and physician who had started a small hospital in Strasburg. He gave the good doctor excellent service in needed items for the hospital.

On balance, one may say that my father made a success of Strasburg's first pharmacy, particularly by being close to it and very active in it. Eventually, however, his dedication took its toll. He contracted tuberculosis in 1911 and died in 1912.