Emilio Sahurie, Times Daily Staff Writer
April 20. 2003
John Lawson's fingers glide over a keyboard, with a prescription bottle sitting nearby. Computers, Internet Web sites and technology that let pharmacists track customers' prescriptions are now a routine part of the business. It's a contrast to the man and the times that Lawson honors when he arrives early in the mornings at his business, Milner-Rushing Discount Drugs. Preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the pharmacy still values many of the traditions such as application of the "golden rule" that established Milner's reputation in its early days in the Shoals.
"I have filled prescriptions for the third generation of a family that were some of my first customers," Lawson said, taking a break from manning a counter at his Muscle Shoals store. "This pharmacy is locally owned, and it's all about customer service; that means a lot to people."
Milner-Rushing is the oldest continuing operating pharmacy in Alabama and the second oldest in the United States. Lawson said it's also the oldest business in Florence, outliving contemporaries like Rogers Department Store that started in 1894.
Milner-Rushing employees are planning a formal event at the end of the month to celebrate the historic business and honor its founder, Joseph Milner. During the summer, the business will likely sponsor a public event to commemorate the roots of the downtown Florence pharmacy, which was started July 12, 1853, by Milner, the son of English immigrants.
There probably won't be free drinks, distributed as they were for a 1935 celebration when the pharmacy threw a birthday party to introduce its state-of-the-art soda fountain. The addition replaced "The Florence," a soda fountain displayed at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893.
The pharmacy, which moved to several downtown Florence buildings throughout the years, has witnessed a passage of time that includes the introduction of cars and electricity. In historical records, the Court Street business also shows its age with its telephone number – 3.
"It has survived good times and bad times, and it has kept going," said De Barnes, director of respiratory services at the pharmacy. "It's an American dream that still exists."
Long before national chains, pharmacists like Milner were considered jack of all trades. Entering Milner's store was one-stop shopping for everything from paint and windows to soap and medicine.
The downtown shop was a popular hub for socializing, ordering a sandwich at the store counter and drinking a limeade, said longtime Shoals resident Grace Rutledge.
She said she spent a lot of time at the Milner shop, taking advantage of its close proximity to Rogers Department Store, where she worked several years ago. In grade school, one of her teachers was one of Milner's daughters, Miss Josie.
"Back then, people weren't much into going to doctors, so it was a popular place," said Rutledge, who is now 76.
Rutledge and her husband, Homer, now shop at the Milner-Rushing store on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals.
"They know my name," Homer Rutledge said. "They treat me like a person, not just someone walking into a store."
The Rushing name was added to the business as result of a merger.
In 1964, Kermit Rushing and his son opened Rushing Drugs in the Four Lane Shopping Center in Florence. Six years later, Al Hawthorn bought the Milner store in downtown Florence and the Rushing pharmacy, combining them in the Four Lane Shopping Center.
Five years out of pharmacy school, Lawson bought the business in 1977. In the early days, he ran the business with his wife and a clerk.
Now employing about 40 people, Lawson has expanded three times and oversees four Milner Rushing pharmacies in the Shoals. The expansions occurred in the 1990s when national pharmacy chains were battling for customers, buying each other out and going bankrupt in some cases.
Lawson said he had his share of offers to sell to larger companies, with the promise of him walking away with some serious retirement money. But thoughts of his family and longtime employees kept him from selling.
For Lawson, the decision to keep the business in the family was an easy one, especially when he watched his son, Jeff, become a pharmacist.
Jeff Lawson was barely tall enough to reach his father's knees when he began visiting the pharmacy. Now, he gets visits at work from his 14-month-old daughter.
"That's the main reason I am not going to sell," Lawson said. "When I come to work, we are a family; we cry together, we laugh together."
It wasn't a profession involving stacking boxes of aspirin on a shelf. Milner, like other druggists, made a living concocting recipes for headaches and other ailments.
In a newspaper advertisement from 1861, drugs that people check off their grocery lists included powerful narcotics like quinine, morphine and opium.
Milner, whose notes and frail ledger of his prescriptions still survive, brewed colognes, hair tonics and stomachache medicine for his customers. One existing note details ingredients for Milner's Talcum Powder, calling for 19 ounces of talcum, 2 ounces of boracic acid, violet extract and zinc oxide.
But Milner's story dates to 18th century England, the home of his parents, James and Hannah B. Milner. The couple was born in England before the turn of the century and died in Lauderdale County.
They came to America in the 1840s with their five children -- Issac, Sarah Margaret, Mary, Joseph and Samuel. While the family lived shortly in Holly Springs, Miss., before moving to Lauderdale County, Joseph Milner sought his fortune in the gold rush of California.
Milner arrived in Florence in 1853 and started the Milner Drug Store, which remained in his family for nearly a century. After several owners, the store exists as Milner Rushing Drugs.
In 1860, Milner married Margaret Ann Woodell and built their home on Seminary Street.
The couple's four children, Mary Letitia, James Woodall, Annie and Josephine, never married.
James Milner was active in the business, with the pharmacy at one point changing its name to Joseph Milner and Son.
His daughters, Mary and Josephine -- or Josie as her family called her -- were the last members of the Milner family to own the longtime downtown Florence business.