A Visit to Atchison’s Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain
When was the last time you had a chocolate soda at a real old-fashioned soda fountain? Think “old-fashioned” as when those of us of a certain age were kids or teenagers. Those soda fountains, as we knew them in “our” day, are rare today.
The day before I left for summer camp the first time, my mother took me to the soda fountain in Walgreens Drugstore, on the corner of York and East Colfax in Denver and treated me to a “going-away” chocolate soda.
Last month, I visited an old-fashioned soda fountain in renown aviatrix Amelia Earhart’s hometown of Atchison, Kansas. [See last week’s blog about my trip to Atchison and The International Forest of Friendship.]
I had been to Atchison and The Forest on two prior occasions — 1992 and 2005 — but had not been to downtown Atchison. By the time I knew I was going back this year, I had heard the “chocolate soda at Ball Drug” story about Charter Ninety-Nine and Original World War II WAFS pilot and leader Betty Huyler Gillies.
Sarah with Amelia’s statue in The International Forest of Friendship
The “Chocolate Soda at Ball Drug” Story
Betty Huyler Gillies as a young pilot
The friend who told me about it suggested that I go exploring and find out if Betty’s soda fountain is still there after all these years.
Betty, one of THE outstanding woman pilots not only of the 1930s but the WWII years and afterwards as chair of the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race, was inducted into The Forest of Friendship its inaugural year, 1976. She returned for the celebration many times after that, always supportive of her good friend and fellow Charter Ninety-Nine, Fay Gillis Wells. It was Fay who shepherded The Forest for the Ninety-Nines from the germ of an idea to the Bicentennial opening in 1976. She served as cochair until her death in 2002.
Betty Put On Her Walking Shoes
Over her many visits, Betty — who liked to walk — began to explore Atchison.
The Friday before the annual celebration, she put on her walking shoes. Exiting the Benedictine Sisters College dormitory on the hill — where the Ninety-Nines stayed in those days — she walked down into town and then up the bluff to Amelia Earhart’s birthplace and museum overlooking the Missouri River … or wherever her feet took her that day.
In 1986, walking along the Mall in downtown Atchison, she discovered Ball Drugs. It was hot that day, typical of summer in Kansas. Betty went in, sat down at the soda fountain to cool off and ordered her favorite, a chocolate soda. She found it to be quite good and returned the following day. This time she ordered a chocolate soda AND another of her favorites, a BLT.
Next year Betty returned, this time taking a couple of her Ninety-Nines friends with her. But when she tried her soda, it wasn’t quite as good as she remembered it. This puzzled her.
The next day, she went back. When everyone else said it was too hot to walk to town, Betty went alone. She asked the soda jerk what he used to make his chocolate sodas. He listed the ingredients, concluding with Vanilla ice cream.
‘Back East We Use Chocolate Ice Cream’
“That’s it,” Betty told the young man and explained that “Back East we make chocolate sodas with Chocolate ice cream!”
She asked if he could make her one with chocolate, but he told her that they got so few requests for Chocolate ice cream, they didn’t carry it. She asked him to consider ordering some chocolate in time for next year’s Forest of Friendship. He made note of it.
When Betty and her Ninety-Nines friends arrived the next year for their chocolate sodas, Ball Drug was well supplied with Chocolate ice cream. Betty had taught Atchison how to make and drink a chocolate soda East Coast Style! Seeing the number of women pilots this very special lady brought in with her each visit, Ball Drug began to order several gallons when International Forest of Friendship weekend arrived.
A tradition was born. Betty Gillies left her own indelible mark on Atchison as well as The Forest of Friendship. She became a celebrity in the eastern Kansas town.
Four Women Pilots Visit THE Soda Fountain
Just having learned about “Betty’s Chocolate Soda Legacy,” I decided to “see for myself.” My fellow 2019 IFOF inductees and I discovered that Ball Drug is gone, but the soda fountain is there — on the mall in downtown Atchison. It is still a popular place to have lunch … or a Chocolate soda or Sundae.
Several of us went there Friday, September 20, the day before the induction ceremony. I opted for a chocolate soda! DELICIOUS!!! – as promised! Here is a photo of four of us enjoying our lunch!
Donna Moore, Laura Smith, Ruby Bowen, Sarah Rickman
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