Ice Cream Social
By Gary VanDeWalker
Story: Gary VanDeWalker
Etna's Historical Soda Fountain
Don Murphy’s voice makes customers want to eat ice cream. Across the marble counter, his words resonate as he makes eye contact with a young boy to ask, “Scott, what can I get you today?” Every scoop of ice cream is a show of fluid movement as the man’s hands bring the treat from the fountain to the waiting fingers of his young customers. The line stretches back to the door, with children just released from a day at school.
Murphy’s smile makes each one want to order all over again just to see him pull back the soda head’s handle and hand-mix a soft drink.
For the past 32 years, Murphy and his wife Sandra, have spent afternoons filling clear glass dishes with phosphates, banana splits and ice cream sundaes as they deliver smiles to the customers of Scott Valley Drug in Siskiyou County’s small community of Etna.
The Murphys began their married life in Redding, where Don worked as a pharmacist. Then the opportunity came to move to Etna and take over the pharmacy. At first, Sandra hesitated. “I didn’t know if I could live in a small community,” she says. The owner offered to include in the sale the William Balfrey house, built by the town’s pharmacist in 1905. “I fell in love and told Don I wanted to make this our home.”
Wanting to add a nostalgic feel to the 1880 brick drug store, Don purchased a high-and-low bar from Talent, Ore., that traveled across the prairies in a schooner wagon in 1876. Don presented them to Sandra as an anniversary gift. The couple began to transform the hardwood and marble countered units into an authentic old-fashioned soda fountain.
The fountain rests on white and black checkered tiles, a brass foot rail below green counter stools. The smell of waffle cones and hot fudge enhances the experience of gazing into the large mirror and smiling back at fellow patrons. The alabaster soda head is topped with a white globe light and two porcelain handles. “There is only one other soda head like this, in the Carnation Creamery at Disneyland,” Don says.
Over the years, the Murphys have trained 120 local youth as soda jerks. Sandra remarks, “There aren’t a lot of places for kids to work. Our kids both worked here, and now, so does our granddaughter.”
During the summer, buses unload in front of the drug store, swamping the shop with excitement. Glasses of Lime Rickey and sarsaparilla join the lineup of chocolate malts. Scoops of vanilla ice cream are placed on the edges of glasses of cold root beer in the old-fashioned style, called a sidecar.
After enjoying their frozen treats, many peek into the walk-in safe that once held the findings of Gold Rush miners. Throughout the store are pharmaceutical antiques – in the front window, a bottle of Emerald Oil sits next to a bottle of Dr. David Roberts Smoothing Paste. Books full of knowledge from the past century form a backdrop for the empty bottles.
Ice cream is a way of life for the Murphy family. “We moved here to enjoy the Walton-days era we found here. Both of our children and their families are back, finding it hard to stay away,” Sandra says.
Music flows from the 25-cent player piano as Scott asks for a scoop of Rocky Road in a sundae glass. “Good choice,” Don says, “Rocky Road was Bill Dreyer’s first creation.”
Scott asks, “What else can I have on it?”
Don smiles. “Our only limitation is your imagination.”