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Old-Fashioned Sweets Draw Hundreds to Reunion of Soda Jerks

May 17, 1993

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) _ Memories of swivel stools, fizzy drinks and creamy confections drew nearly 300 people to a reunion of soda jerks.

Old-fashioned handmade soft drinks, mixed malts and ice cream sodas, dished up by able practitioners of a once-flourishing trade, were aplenty at Sunday’s reunion in Ben’s Rexall Drug Store.

The job of a soda jerk isn’t difficult, said Connie Morgan, who worked behind a drug store soda fountain counter in high school before returning to the business at Ben’s.

″It only requires strong wrists for scooping the ice cream. Once you learn, you never forget,″ she said.

In the days before fast-food chains, drug store soda fountains were prime teen-age hangouts in nearly every American town.

Ben Wassinger Sr., retired owner of Ben’s, said the store once stayed open until 1 a.m. to serve crowds who wanted ice cream after going to the movies.

Wassinger began working as a soda jerk in 1937 in western Kansas, and he has been in the same location in Grand Island since 1939.

The job required creativity and came with one important bonus. ″If you made a mistake you got to drink it,″ he said.

Kenneth Harris, a retired pharmacist, began working as a soda jerk in 1919 in a drug store in Ansley. In those days there was no refrigeration. Harris had to chip ice from 300-pound blocks to pack and salt the ice cream.

A long-ago romance at the neighborhood soda fountain inspired Betty Davis to begin the Omaha-based National Association of Soda Jerks in 1990. Although there are few soda fountains left, the association has nearly 1,000 members.

Davis said her mother worked as a soda jerk as a young girl, and her father would come every day after school for a malt. He said she made the best malts of anybody.

Davis’ mother later confessed to putting an extra egg in his malts. The couple later married and often reminisced about the old soda fountain days.

Soda jerks got their names from pulling on the old goose-neck faucets with the carbonated water. Some former soda jerks call themselves fizzicians or fountaineers.

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