Looking Back: Lewis Drug
Lewis Drug lasts despite a war-time start, expands across city
On Feb. 10, 1942, South Dakota’s first self-service drugstore opened at 309 S. Phillips Ave. It was a little store called Lewis, and it occupied the space now run by CH Patisserie just south of Minerva’s.
Opening a new store was a risky prospect in 1942, but the ball was already rolling to get it done. The country was buckling down for a war that was just declared two months before. Wartime rationing was bound to put long-term restrictions on items that, up to this point, could easily be purchased. The store was opened by Jesse Lewis and George Fredrickson, and the store manager was John Griffin.
Self-service drugstores were a new thing at the time. Up until that point, every pharmaceutical item purchased in a drugstore had to be procured by the pharmacist. If you needed an aspirin, you’d have to ask at the counter. The self-service drugstore gave customers the ability to browse the items available to them. It empowered customers to choose the products they wanted more freely than when using the old system.
In 1944, Jesse Lewis bailed on the whole operation and moved to Omaha. His departure suggested a lack of faith in the success of the venture during these difficult times. He craved security that wasn’t guaranteed in the fledgling business. The store retained his name, however, as it does to this day. The benefits of Lewis Drugs’ eventual success would be lost to him. The little drugstore on Phillips Avenue survived by selling books, soap and popcorn, the last of which made Lewis a favorite of the matinee theater crowd. Before the State Theatre sold popcorn and candy, its patrons would sneak in these items from across the street.
In 1956, Fredrickson and Griffin opened a newer, larger location in a cornfield at 35th Street and Minnesota Avenue. A year earlier, this new location would have been in the town of South Sioux Falls. The new location showed faith in the growth of the city and a vision for the future of the company. The new Lewis Southgate was a 17,000-square-foot shopping experience. The success of the new store was immediately evident, and the basement was soon added to the sales area. Other additions were built through the years, bringing its eventual size to 50,000 square feet. Parking was a bit of a problem after the expansion of the store and the growth of other businesses around it. For Sioux Falls residents at the time, it was like a mall years before a mall was built in town.
Lewis eventually added more stores. Lewis Westgate at 12th Street and Kiwanis Avenue opened in 1967; Eastgate at 10th Street and Cliff Avenue opened in 1974; and Southwest Gate at 41st and Marion opened in 1984. The original location closed and became the company’s corporate offices in 1974.
Many will recall the memorable ads Jim Varney made for Lewis in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Varney’s character was Ernest P. Worrell, a character he worked up in commercials for companies such as Lewis Drug, before making the character into a successful movie franchise.
The original Southgate closed in 1990 when the new Southgate location opened at 41st Street and Minnesota. The new store offered better parking, a more visible location and a better store layout. The old Southgate location turned into Lewis Corporate Offices. It is still named for Jesse Lewis, though he was perhaps the most temporary fixture in the business.
Eric Renshaw of Sioux Falls has written the book “Forgotten Sioux Falls” and gives a historical perspective on his website GreetingsFromSiouxFalls.com.