Charles R. Walgreen, One of Galesburg’s Own

by Terry Hogan

I enjoy Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac that appears daily on many radio stations around the U.S. Partly it is his voice. Partly it is the poem that he reads each day that seems to be a little window on America or Americans' daily lives. I get it emailed to my computer at work so that the first thing I do before the fray begins, is to "click the mouse" and enjoy The Writer's Almanac. It gives me a couple of minutes of calm. To my surprise, on October 9, I heard Garrisson say "Galesburg, Illinois." He was noting that it was the birthday of Charles Rudolph Walgreen, founder of the ubiquitous Walgreens drug store chain.

Charles was born near Galesburg on October 9, 1873. Like so many of us, Charles had more than a drop of Swedish blood. His father was Charles Walgreen, born on May 20, 1829 in Juteburg, Sweden. The senior Charles left Sweden in 1852 and settled near Galesburg. In 1871, Charles senior married Ellen Olsen. They had three children - Linda, Charles, and Esther.

But this new line of Swedes didn't stay near Galesburg too long. In 1889, the family uprooted and moved to Dixon, Illinois. Charles senior opened up a real estate office, after being a farmer in the Galesburg area. (Now you know why Dixon's airport is named what it is - Charles R. Walgreen.)

Charles junior had, like so many of us, a misfortune that turned out to be a life-changing event. He lost part of his middle finger while working in a shoe factory. He turned to being an employee at a drug store. He worked at Horton's Drugstore for only about a year and a half. His salary was a whopping $4 a week. He moved to Chicago in 1893 and worked for a number of different pharmacies. He learned what was good and what wasn't good business practice.

In 1901 Charles Walgreen put a down payment on a pharmacy in Chicago. It was one that he was currently working at. So, the first Walgreens was located on Chicago's South Side. It was in the Barrett's Hotel at the intersection of Cottage Grove and Bowen Avenue. This wasn't his only major life change occurring about this time. Charles met Myrtle Norton at a pharmacist's excursion on Lake Michigan (that was probably a wild group). Myrtle and Charles were married in 1902.

The rest is history. He implemented the best he saw in other stores, added his own innovations, and had some help from a few good employees over the years. Some employees even had their own innovations. Walgreen converted the soda fountain from just being a place to get a cool drink or ice cream in the summer to a year around attraction by adding quick, hot food served in the winter.

One of his employees, Ivan Coulson, came up with an improvement on the traditional malted milk shake. Up to that time, the soda fountain malted milk shake was made with milk, chocolate syrup and a spoonful of malt powder. Well, it seems that Ivan was probably secretly a "wild and crazy guy". Perhaps his friends called him "Crazy Ivan," but that's just speculation. But back to this innovative and crazy guy. On one particularly hot day (so goes the story), Ivan had a wild and crazy idea. "Thinking outside the box", before there even was a box, he had a radical idea. He added not one, but two scoops of vanilla ice cream to the recipe. He wasn’t a guy for moderation. It was a pretty radical idea, but America was apparently just waiting for Crazy Ivan's innovative talent to be expressed. They came. They ate. They came again. Ivan's innovation was a success and the "new and improved" malt was adopted at all the Walgreen stores. History, or at least Walgreens home page, records that the public lined up to sample this new drink.

By 1984, Walgreens had 1,000 stores. Today you can go to most cities and towns and find a Walgreens, and probably a CVS nearby, battling it out for your business. Perhaps this is good. Perhaps not. Perhaps it depends on whether you have a prescription to be filled, or whether you are attempting to preserve and restore parts of the old town.

It strikes me a little odd that the soda fountain with Walgreen’s cold and hot food, and Crazy Ivan’s innovative malted drinks are no where to be found in today’s Walgreens. It is too bad. Hurrying here, hurrying there, and then waiting for your prescription. What could be better use of your waiting time than to stop for a cool malt with two scoops of ice cream. Ivan had a good idea. Take a pause, and give a silent toast to Crazy Ivan. Well, perhaps there is a Dairy Queen down the street.

However, if you want to compare the bright, and perhaps overwhelming, Walgreens of today, with the very first Walgreen drugstore, you can. Under the direction of the "Walgreen Drug Stores Historical Foundation," a replica of the first Walgreens that stood at Cottage Grove and Bowen avenues in Chicago, has been created. It stands at the Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry "Yesterday's Main Street" display. Ironically, you have to go to someplace like the Museum of Science and Industry to see a genuine imitation of "Yesterday's Main Street" because the originals are gone, replaced with national chain stores. But that is another story.

Charles R. Walgreen, a man who gave America his finger (or at least a part of it) and a chain of drug stores. One of Galesburg's own.