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In the 21st century pharmacies, much like all of business, are dominated by a few big names. CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and more are located in nearly every nook and cranny of America. Even supermarkets like Publix and retailers like Walmart dabble in prescriptions. A century ago things were far different. The local pharmacy was a Mom and Pop operation. It was a friendly and familiar face. It was as much a hangout and general store as it was a place to pick up our scripts.
On Cape Cod there have been many beloved local pharmacies during the 19th and 20th centuries. However one that stands up near the top of the mountain in Cape history is that of Megathlin’s Drug Store. Existing for decades on Hyannis’ Main Street it was the home of operations for Charles W. Megathlin, but it was hardly the only thing he was known for. This is a bit about the man and the business that bore his name.
Charles W. Megathlin was born in Harwich, Massachusetts on April 2, 1872 to Anthony and Mary Megathlin. While attending Harwich High School Megathlin worked in the drug store of Dr. Benjamin Eldredge. It gave him a taste of what would be his future. After graduating from Harwich High School in 1891 and marrying Louise Munsell in October 1893 the young Megathlin set his sights on a career.
An opportunity arose in the form of a drug store on Main Street in Hyannis. The 21-year old Megathlin bought the Hyannis Pharmacy from John P. Bowen. Bowen had run the business since 1890 before closing it in October 1893 to take a job in Boston as a traveling salesman.
Megathlin immediately made improvements, including renaming it to Megathlin’s Drug Store. The grand opening soon thereafter. In order to keep close to his new venture Megathlin rented the former home of Captain Asa Bearse just down the street.
Pharmacies at the time, much like today, sold far more than just medications. Basic toiletries like soaps and tooth powders, chocolates, and rare gifts and novelties were advertised in the local newspaper as being on sale at Megathlin’s. The business was an immediate success. Within two years it had outgrown its current location.
Megathlin leased the building across the street in March 1894. This building had been the home of Louis Arenovski’s American Clothing House. Locals had doubts as to whether Megathlin could fill the large space with products. He did so with ease. The next several years saw Megathlin’s Drug Store dominate Hyannis business. It became the go-to for much of the everyday items that locals needed. In 1900 Charles purchased a building owned by William Lewis. This was converted into a new location for the drug store. It appeared as though nothing could slow the growth of Megathlin’s. However an event out of Charles’ control brought everything to a halt.
|Postcard image of the Main Street fire. (Sturgis Library)
On December 10, 1904 a major fire broke out around midnight, engulfing much of the business district of Main Street. The fire raged unchecked for hours. In the end several longtime establishments were damaged or destroyed. These included Megathlin’s Drug Store. In addition the Universalist church, Thomas Nickerson’s marble works, James Baxter’s shoe store, Eagleston’s store, the New England Telephone office, Walter Baker’s department store, and more were lost. Though the fire was said to have been accidental it left much of the east end of Main Street in ruins. Conservative estimates at the time had losses at more than $110,000($3.4 million in 2022)
Charles Megathlin pulled up his boot straps and soldiered on though. Since the fire had been slow burning there had been ample time to remove much of the goods from the store. Megathlin got right to work on rebuilding his popular pharmacy. Within six weeks the new store was partly raised and boarded. In the meantime Megathlin took up temporary residence nearby and sold what dry good he had.
|Megathlin's rebuilt store on Main Street(Sturgis Library)
The new Megathlin’s opened April 20, 1905. He had taken the opportunity to make the new building bigger and better. The improvements included work rooms and laboratory rooms for medications. In addition people came from near and far to see the incredible marble countered soda fountain. The store continued its upward trajectory after the near-tragic fire. The store became an important distraction when Louis died in June 1906 at the young age of forty-one. A year later Charles married Mabel Lumbert.
It got the point where the Hyannis store was seen on the same level as bigger city stores like those in Boston. More changes came in the summer of 1916. Megathlin added a new staircase to the second floor, mahogany wall cases, and a new drug counter with one hundred drawers. The wise businessman added a Japanese shop and Victrola department on the second floor of the revamped store.
Decades of faithful service gave Megathlin’s the status as one of the largest local drug store operations in all of New England. It was during this time that Megathlin began to branch out in the grander scheme of the Cape Cod community. His knowledge of business, banking, pharmaceuticals, and more made him a popular local figure. Megathlin’s kind and genial nature only enhanced his stature.
His new accolades included becoming the President of the New England Association of Rexall Druggists and the President of the Public Safety Committee of Hyannis both in 1917. In 1920 Megathlin added to this by becoming the President of the Cape Cod National Bank of Harwich which later became the Cape Cod Trust Company. His final, and perhaps greatest locally, achievement was becoming the first President of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce in February 1921. Megathlin only held that title until the organization’s next meeting which was the next month due to his other obligations.
Despite having many new responsibilities Megathlin’s first love was his drug store. By the time he got into his mid-50’s though Megathlin was looking to slow down his life a bit with his second wife. In a major event the longtime owner sold Megathlin’s Drug Store to Louis Liggett also of drug store fame. Charles retained ownership of the building including an office he used on the second floor. Despite his name being removed from the business Charles Megathlin was still highly influential. His banking and real estate ventures led the entire building that housed Liggett’s and a few other businesses to be renamed the Megathlin Block later in 1926.
In a sad irony, only a year after selling his beloved drug store to slow his life down some tragedy struck. Mabel Megathlin died in August 1927 at the age of fifty-seven. In 1928 Charles married for a third time. This was to Marguerite Baldwin. Charles and Marguerite became parents to Charles Jr. in August 1929. Megathlin was fifty-eight at the time and this was his only child.
|The historical marker at Ocean St., denoting Megathlin's. (HMdb.org/Brandon D. Cross)
Although he remained somewhat active locally Charles Megathlin for the most part faded from the public view. He spent the 1930’s and 1940’s enjoying being a husband and father. Charles did end up becoming President of the Cape Cod Chamber for a second time in March 1949. Entering his eighties Megathlin had carved out an extensive legacy on Cape Cod.
The end came for Charles late on December 2, 1954. During a severe snowstorm Megathlin was driving alone through West Dennis when he lost control and struck a tree. He died instantly.
Though the final act for Charles Megathlin was that of a tragic accident his life was a rousing success. Through tragic deaths, and the near-total loss of his business, Megathlin and his drug store transcended into iconic status. Even nearly a century after Charles sold his store to Louis Liggett the name Megathlin still echoes along Hyannis’ Main Street.
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