Marking the history of Kemper Drug reinforces the significance of this landmark in Elk River. This oral history collected from Bob Kemper provides new insight into the building and also contributes understanding to the business history of the city.
When I bought the store it was the only drugstore in town; and it remained the only drugstore for quite a while. But, of course, eventually, all the grocery stores had pharmacies in them. So, it’s quite a different picture, although Kemper Drug is still there.
My dad had a drugstore in Perham. My older brother is also a pharmacist. So, we grew up in the drugstore. I worked in several stores after that. And then, of course, the war came on; I went and joined the navy. Then I came back and bought the store in Elk River. My partner was my brother. We also had the Perham drugstore. Eventually, we separated and I owned the Elk River store and he, the Perham store.
Well, my dad had our drugstore in Perham, and when I graduated from high school, he asked me—I think the way he worded it—he said, “What do you expect now to make the world a better place to live in?” I didn’t have an answer to that, so he said, until you know what you’re going to do, you can come to work for me. So, I worked in the drugstore in Perham for a year. And then, in the meantime, my father died and my mother died, and my brother and I were partners then and we wanted another store, so we bought a store in Elk River.
When I came here, I was the only drugstore in town; but a situation existed that was kind of bad. All the doctors had their own dispensaries, so when you went to the doctor and you needed some pill, he’d get them. He didn’t write a prescription. Well, I kept working on it. I thought eventually I’ll get the guys talked in to do thing the way they ought to. And they could practice medicine and send the people to the drugstore. But I had a pretty good business even without the prescriptions. We had a soda fountain. We were sitting on the corner. Lot of cars by and traffic, and so we had a pretty good business without that. But I wanted to get the prescription business a little better. Eventually it happened.
Kemper Drug after fire destroyed the
building in January 1960
Of course, about the fire: it was a cold, very cold day (January 6, 1960) a bitter cold day. And we had opened the store and we had the hotel upstairs, too. I owned that, too. So, one of the clerks came to me and said, “Gee, there’s some smoke coming up on the side of the store here.” And I went over there, and then I went down the basement. Mac Hamlet, who took care of my store, the heating and whatnot, said the furnace acted up. He had one of those fireman feeders. He overdid it but says “I can fix it.” So, I said, okay and I went back up to the store and everything was okay. And then that clerk came back again and said, “there’s smoke coming up over there.” So, I went down there and by that time, there was fire in the ceiling in the basement and Mac Hamlet was still there, and I said, “I guess we better get out of here.” And then I had to go back to the hotel to be sure there weren’t any people there.
So, at any rate, it was a big day, and cold, and we had fire departments from Monticello and Anoka. A lot of people working on that fire, and this is a bitter cold day.
It was a terrific blow. And, I didn’t know quite what to do. I had several people helping me, had some ideas I should find a place in town the would rent. And people sent me back to Minneapolis to get some stock. I went back to the wholesale drug company and told them what happened; and they were all excited.
Of course, now we lost the hotel upstairs, which was really not such a bad deal. I didn’t like the hotel business. So, I didn’t have that big building anymore; and I built a nice new building. It almost, you might say, worked out pretty good for me.
Bob Kemper rebuilt and the building standing on the corner of Highway 10 and Jackson Street remains a significant landmark to the city.