If These Walls Could Talk: Currently Vilas Pharmacy

Anderson, Grenz & Straub. "If These Walls Could Talk: Currently Vilas Pharmacy." Northwest Blade, 6 October 2011, 5.

We walk past them everyday. We see concrete, wood, steel or bricks. We fail to notice that anchored in the chinks of mortar and hammered into every nail are the hopes, dreams and the aspirations of the people that built them.

The building now known as Vilas Pharmacy is just such a place. Let me tell you the stories behind some of the people connected to this building.

In April 1860, Ludwig Orthwein was born in Russia. He married Rosina Lade and together they immigrated to the US in 1889. This young couple, as so many others of that time, didn’t have any money. They borrowed money to start farming and through very hard work, industry and scrimping, the Orthweins became financially solvent, paid off their debts and started a small store near Long Lake, SD. In 1912, the Orthweins moved to Eureka, SD, moving their store’s inventory & furnishings as well. In addition to running a general merchandise store in Eureka, the Orthweins had the mail contract, of $127 per year, for hauling the mail from Eureka three times a week. According to the 1916 Eureka Business Directory and the 1920 Eureka Business Directory listed in the Aberdeen American New, Ludwig Orthwein and his son, J. Fred Orthwein, owned and managed a general merchandise store on Market Street. The Orthwein’s dream of owning property and being their own bosses had come true in Eureka, SD. J. Fred Orthwein preceded his father in death, but Ludwig continued to run the store until his retirement in 1927.

The Orthwein building underwent a huge change in the early thirties when it became a place of entertainment known as the Lyric Theatre. Films were first introduced to the world in 1894, the first movie incorporating sound (talkies) was shown in Paris in 1900; and by the early 1930’s, talkies were a global phenomenon. (It should be brought to the attention of the reader that back in 1910, HM Turner and George Knickerbocker agreed to bring moving pictures to Eureka.) Eureka was progressive and moving towards modernity very quickly. The Lyric Theatre was originally started by Kent Shaw and Charles Lee in the original Orthwein building.

In 1931, the Lyric Theatre was stuccoed and a new sign with 66 electric lights was installed. Later, Charles Lee purchased Kent Shaw’s interest. In 1935, the theater was purchased by WC Turner and managed by VC Turner. An ad in the 1937 Eureka Jubilee book states that Delphi Turner was the manager. In the early winter of 1936, the building was purchased from Frieda Orthwein, daughter-in-law of Ludwig and Rosina Orthwein. (This date seems to conflict with the date of 1935 mentioned earlier, but this author could not verify which date was accurate.)

Sometime between 1936 and 1939, the building was bought by Joseph Bender. Of what importance is that? Again, people’s dreams play heavily into this transaction. Joseph Bender was also born in Russia in 1888, arriving in the US in 1906. Joseph Bender was a rarity in Eureka, since he was of the Jewish faith. In Russia, the government didn’t allow people of the Jewish faith to own farm land. In America, no such restrictions existed. In 1915, Joseph and his wife, Mary, moved to Eureka where Mary and Joseph became involved in various Eureka businesses. In the 1937 Eureka Jubilee Book, Joseph Bender is listed as owning a general merchandise store and selling real estate. We know from reading the family history of Walter and Vivian Wenzel in the 1987 Eureka Centennial Book that the Wenzels bought the Lyric Theatre from Joseph Bender in 1940. One can see the hopes and dreams of a man of Jewish faith coming to fruition in Eureka, where he became a business man and a property owner.

The Wenzels updated the Lyric Theatre on Market Street, and owned it until 1949, when it was sold to Emanuel Heilman and his sons Harold and Lester. Josephine Odenbach Lang remembers going to the Lyric in the early 1940’s with her parents, Arthur and Ella Odenbach, and her uncle and aunt, Edward and Ruth Odenbach. Young Josephine was captivated by the heavy red velvet curtain that covered the screen and the many lights along the sides of the theater. Josephine told this author that she aspired to become a movie ticket seller like her aunt Lavern Odenbach, who worked in the Lyric Theatre. The Lyric became a place of entertainment and pride for the people of Eureka.

Another gentleman that enthralled this author was Emanuel Heilman. His pioneer spirit was evident in everything that he did. Emanuel was also born in Russia in 1887; and as a young boy, Emanuel lost his father. Education was vitally important to Emanuel. He went to school whenever and where ever he could. He took such varied courses as steam engineering and commercial training. One of Emanuel’s greatest passions was photography. Emanuel worked for a traveling photographer named Mr. Chaffee. Three photo cars were sent to Eureka, Herreid, SD, and Zeeland, ND. Mr. Heilman realized the importance of photos in the lives of the pioneers that settled Eureka. The ad for Heilman Photos in the 1937 Jubilee Book states "photographs today are the treasured records of tomorrow." Mr. Heilman portrayed the dreams and aspirations that were mentioned earlier. He served on the Eureka Fire Dept., was city assessor and city mayor, member of the school board and appointed to various state positions by two SD governors. His initial studio was located on Main Street (now G Ave.) and will be covered in a future article.

In 1949, Emanuel and his sons Lester and Harold, bought the Lyric Theatre from Walt Wenzel. The Heilman Drug and Studio, after extensive remodeling, opened for business in December 1949. Lester and Harold were partnership owners and their father, Emanuel, operated the photographic studio. The building now featured a soda fountain and pharmacy. Mrs. Elsie Heilman was an integral part of the business serving as both bookkeeper and sales person. Two long time employees were Louella Splitt and Tillie Flemmer, who worked at Heilman Drug for over 30 years.

Emanuel Heilman retired in 1955 and died in 1959, but Harold and Evelyn Heilman continued to operate the studio. Harold died in 1966, after which Lester bought the partnership, remodeled and added the studio space to the drug store. Heilman Drug was always known for its classy window displays, and Lester’s hobby of rose gardening was evident by the bouquets of roses that were often displayed on the prescription counter.

A fire destroyed the building in June 1972, but just as Emanuel was forward reaching, so was his son, Lester. Deciding to rebuild, they ran the business out of the vacant hardware store next door for several months until the new drug store was open for business in January 1973. The store thrived and was often open for business seven days a week, staying open until 10:00 p.m. or even midnight on Saturday nights.

Heilman Drug was sold to Jack Weber in 1989 with the name changing to Weber Drug. The only change was the introduction of a computer to the prescription room. Jack Weber sold the store to Milbert Schick in 1991. Concerned about the future of the businesses in Eureka, Milbert Schick purchased the Rexall Drug inventory (written in an earlier "If These Walls Could Talk" article), combined it with the Weber Drug inventory, and changed the name to Eureka Pharmacy and Gift Shop. Elial Harr was hired as the head pharmacist, and Lester Heilman as part-time pharmacist. Milbert Schick sold the building and inventory to Jim Stephens in 1997.

It is now known as Vilas Pharmacy with Jim Stephens, Judy Waldman and Christine Sawinsky as the pharmacists. Lester Heilman sometimes still helps with arranging the window displays.

If these walls could talk, we would hear, "Do you see me differently now? I am more than bricks, steel or wood. I am the summation of dreams, hopes and the love of the people that built me."

Heilman Drug Fire, June 1972. Les & Elsie Heilman watching the fire which destroyed their store in less than an hour. The cause was never discovered.
Orthwein store receipt, 1931.
Present-day Vilas Pharmacy.
Interior of Orthwein & Son General Merchandise Store and Post Office.

Story courtesy of the Northwest Blade, Eureka, SD.
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