For nearly a century, Marshall’s Drugstore soda fountain in Urbanna has been serving up tasty meals with a generous helping of hometown charm. The cozy soda fountain, possibly one of the last remaining drugstore lunch counters, is a reminder of a bygone era and a sentimental favorite of all who visit. Marshall’s Drugstore was once the commercial centerpiece of Urbanna and probably the whole of Middlesex County. The soda fountain was, and still is, its heart.At a time when the town boasted a movie theater, skating rink and a bowling alley, “Everyone came to Urbanna,” said Pat Marshall, owner of the drugstore and nearby Bristow’s Store. The drugstore and the soda fountain were a hub of activity, especially on Saturday nights. Young and old alike stopped in for ice cream, snacks, limeades and sundaes. “Everyone picked up their children at the drugstore after the movies or social events,” Mrs. Marshall added.
Marshall’s Drugstore was founded around 1928 by Thomas F. “Doc” Marshall, Sr., when he bought the business from Sam Richardson. Doc Marshall, a native of Victoria, was a pharmacy school graduate of the Medical College of Virginia. Even though they could have lived anywhere, Marshall and his wife, Lucy, chose to live above their store. At the time, Marshall’s Drugstore was less than half the size it is today. The soda fountain featured ice cream parlor-style tables and chairs arranged down a center aisle, and small booths off to the side. It was a snug fit for a full-service pharmacy and a luncheonette. Later, sons Thomas F. Marshall, Jr. (who passed away in February, 1993), and Richard E. Marshall (Pat’s husband, who passed away in April, 2015) took over management of the drugstore and expanded it to its current size. Their father looked on the renovation at first with skepticism and then approval, Mrs. Marshall explained. His initial comment was, “‘I don’t know what those boys are doing,’” she said. When the work was finished, however, he commended them with, “‘We’ve been needing to do this for a long time,’” she added.
Richard and Pat had been married in 1953. Mrs. Marshall is a Richmond native who grew up on a farm in Mechanicsville. “Moving to Urbanna was a totally different life for me,” she said. “Marrying Richard and living here was the best thing that ever happened to me. There’s nothing like growing up in a small town. We all looked after each other,” she said.
The Marshall brothers ran the business together until Tommy’s passing. Then Richard handled things on his own, with help and advice from Mrs. Marshall. Before Richard passed last year, he reluctantly had decided to close the soda fountain because it was losing money. After his death, Mrs. Marshall considered the problem and decided to keep the drugstore’s much-loved soda fountain open. “It was the first time I had ever gone against my husband’s decision,” she said. Further, she vowed to cover the lunch counter’s losses out of her own money. “As soon as I took it over, the ice cream fountain broke down, to the tune of $3,000,” she said.
In spite of the initial mishap, Mrs. Marshall doesn’t regret her decision. Today, Marshall’s Soda Fountain is holding its own, even thriving, under the direction of Miracle Gordon, manager/chef, and his assistant, Hannah Clark, who are both nearing their one-year anniversary with Marshall’s. “Miracle truly has been a miracle,” Mrs. Marshall said. The soda fountain offers typical breakfast and lunch fare, as well as a selection of fresh, seasonal favorites. The menu changes regularly, to reflect local abundance. Gordon scouts the goods of local farmers and watermen to create specialty recipes — his crab cakes are a particular favorite. Gordon and Ms. Clark work together to keep the soda fountain flourishing. “It’s humble and quaint, with a modern-day twist,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be where I can be flexible and creative.”
On any given day, the pair stands behind the curvy counter, chatting with the customers seated before them on 50’s-style swivel stools. The ambience is vintage, but the service is thoroughly fresh. In full view of all, they clean, serve and prepare the day’s recipes. “We can’t hide back here,” Gordon said. “When we say it’s fresh, everyone can see it.” He’s even given cooking demonstrations featuring local seafood. The soda fountain is the setting for coffee clubs, lunch clubs, birthday parties, special events and fundraisers. “We do a little bit of everything,” Gordon said, including special requests and catering. In the spirit of Richard Marshall, who enjoyed handing out samples of ice cream or coffee to passersby on the street in front of the drugstore, the soda fountain hosts a customer appreciation buffet on the Saturday before every holiday. “We like to honor his legacy,” Gordon said.
Pat Marshall is often found overseeing operations from a perch at the lunch counter. Supplied with a magic marker and poster board, she sometimes hand letters signs for the store and decorates them as the occasion requires. She is surrounded by family and friends, many of whom stop by to say hello, grab a bite to eat, pick up a prescription or simply browse and shop. Two of her daughters are close at hand — Becky Edwards is the pharmacist and Kim Cradlin is the accountant. Daughter Pam Heiser lives in California and son David Marshall lives in Richmond. It’s an extended-family affair at Marshall’s Drugstore soda fountain, where the past meets the present and small town flavor is always on the menu.