Colfax Pharmacy served town for 125 years

By: Nancy Hagman, Special to the Colfax Record
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Before closing in 1995, the historic Colfax Pharmacy at 33 North Main Street was the fourth-oldest business of this type in the state of California. Started by N.R. Traphagen in 1870, it was originally located in a building on Grass Valley Street. In October of that same year, a man from Iowa Hill, John Butler, purchased the empty lot on Main Street from the railroad company. He constructed the brick building that still stands; its date of completion has not been determined. We do know that Butler purchased the pharmacy business from Traphagen in 1874, after the first major town fire destroyed Traphagen’s building. The new structure had iron doors – like many other buildings in town – for fire suppression. It was known as Colfax Drug Store. Butler also served as the town dentist. John L. Butler took over the business after the death of his father in 1908. In 1912, the Telephone Exchange Company installed a state-of-the-art switchboard, and the store also housed the post office for many years. The Colfax Record reported the Butler heirs’ sale of the business and facility to S. H. Sayre in 1920. At the same time, they conveyed the family residence, just north of town, to Dr. Robert A. Peers. Sayre, who had been a pharmacist in Sacramento for a number of years, had just returned from army service as a Captain in World War I. Sayre did extensive remodeling and added a new Victrola department featuring the latest phonograph supplies. In 1929, the store was sold to Sam Laing of Sacramento. Laing installed the marble soda fountain, typical of the time, which was subsequently removed. During World War II, the store was the official station for the deposit of gifts for overseas American soldiers. Laing made sure that every package reached its destination. Richard “Dick” Wayland, Robert Kauffman and Garvin Mitchell went into partnership and bought the business in 1956. Wayland (born Dec. 9, 1934 in Chicago, Ill.) was just out of Washington State with a degree in pharmacy. He started his long association with the building when he was in elementary school as a stock boy for Bill Schultz. Wayland, along with his wife, Helen, eventually bought out the partners and they became sole proprietors. Museum archivist Helen Wayland recorded a story from Ersilia “Celia” Bertolli in 1985. Bertolli – who was March 15, 1896 and died Dec. 22, 1989 – was considered the right hand of the pharmacy. She started her employment in 1929 and was fluent in both Spanish and Italian. Bertolli related that after a fire practically gutted the store, year unknown, “we put on our rubber boots and stood in a foot of water and rubble while we handed out medicines for the sick and injured. We couldn’t close up – the people needed us more than ever.” Another favorite story is about the time a burglar thought he would be sneaky and steal some drugs by breaking into the building through the roof, only to be thwarted by the dirt that was put in the ceiling as a fire suppression system. According to Dick Wayland, the store was burglarized six times during the Wayland ownership. The Waylands retired and closed the doors for good in 1995. For a time they leased the property but ultimately sold it to Vicki Breslin who opened the Phunny Pharm, a sticker and craft shop. She, in turn, sold the property to Elan Vitkoff, currently operating the Greek Bistro. Known for giving students their first work experience, many of Wayland’s young store employees went on to become noted town citizens. Lynn Fontana, Jim Albright, Connie Marson and Felice Longway are just a few examples from the long list. Some, like Kendall Quinn, even became pharmacists.