Lytle Pharmacy is Rochester’s Oldest Drug Store

No living person in the Rochester area remembers when there wasn’t a pharmacy located in the Opera House block at the corner of Fourth & Main streets. Ever since the building first opened its doors in 1890, a pharmacy sign has been hanging in its front window. Robert A. Lytle is the current – and longest tenured – proprietor of the drug store business that was operated by John T. Norton when the Opera House block welcomed its first tenants 126 years ago.

When Charles A. Burr built the Opera House block in the summer of 1890, it was split into two storefronts on the ground floor and had a social hall – the Opera House – on the second floor. A bank occupied the storefront nearest the corner, and the space in the south half of the building housed John T. Norton’s drug store.

1905 Postcard couresty of the Rochester Hills Public Library

1905 Postcard courtesy of the Rochester Hills Public Library

Charles A. Burr was an entrepreneur who had been in the furniture and undertaking business and the hardware trade before transitioning into banking. He also served as postmaster of Rochester from 1893 to 1895 and operated the town post office in the back of his Opera House building during that time. A door in the north wall of the building, near the back – long ago bricked over but still visible on the Fourth Street side – was the post office entrance in those days.

Post Office Door Now Bricked Up

Post Office Door Now Bricked Up – photo by Deborah Larsen

Meanwhile, the second floor of the building hosted all manner of public entertainment. At the time, Rochester had no theatre, school gymnasium, or other accommodation for large public gatherings. The Opera House was the place to go for plays, concerts, dances, vaudeville shows, lectures, and even amateur boxing matches. High school commencement exercises were also held there for a couple of decades.

When the Opera House held its grand opening dance on November 7, 1890, Finney’s Orchestra of Detroit provided the music, and the price of admission for the evening was 75 cents. Advertising of the time claimed – although it is difficult to imagine today – that the Opera House could hold an audience of 500 people.

As for the drug store on the ground floor, Albert E. Stanley bought out John T. Norton and son in 1923, and Norton died soon thereafter. Stanley decided it would be best for business to retain the respected Norton name, so he called the pharmacy Norton & Stanley. Stanley’s ownership was short-lived, and after five years, he sold out to Zeno Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft’s Drug Store operated from 1928 to 1948, when T. Kenneth Fetters bought the store. Richard Morley bought the business from Fetters in 1961 and ran it until he died in an airplane crash in 1972. At that time, a new owner took over from the Morley heirs but retained the Morley name. Robert A. Lytle bought the business in 1976. He has operated the pharmacy longer than any other proprietor had since the business located in the Opera House block in 1890.

Fourth and Main Streets, 1910, courtesy of The Rochester Hills Public Library

Fourth and Main Streets, 1910, courtesy of The Rochester Hills Public Library

Bob Lytle’s desire to be a community pharmacist started in his youth. In an interview with Rochester Media, he recalled that he wanted to be “the pharmacist who knew all of his customers personally and greeted them by name when they came into the store,” just like the pharmacist he remembered from the neighborhood where he grew up. While working in the area for Perry Drugs in the early 1970s, Lytle found Rochester much to his liking. After Morley’s death, he stopped in at the drug store one day to let the management know that he was available to fill in on a part-time basis, and they took him up on his offer. Eventually, when the owner who had succeeded Morley was ready to sell, Lytle was able to put together a deal to buy the pharmacy. Lytle Pharmacy replaced the Morley name in 1976.

Ten years later, Lytle bought the Opera House building. He restored the exterior, including the iconic Richardson-Romanesque arches that had been partially covered in an attempt to modernize the storefront. The Rochester Opera House building received a Michigan Historical Marker in 1991.

There is credible historical evidence to suggest that Lytle Pharmacy can trace its lineage back to what was most likely Rochester’s very first drug store, operated by Dr. Rollin Sprague. An old advertisement for the Schoolcraft Drug Store claims that the business started with Sprague, who ran it from 1832 to 1846. Next in line of proprietorship was Dr. John K. Hudson, who operated the drug store from 1846 to 1881, when John T. Norton took over. If this old account is accurate (and other records do appear to support it), then Lytle Pharmacy is a direct descendant of one of the town’s pioneer businesses and its ancestry stretches back 184 years – almost as far as the history of Rochester itself.

 

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Sue Douglas says:

    Thanks for sharing this information.

  2. Christine Lind Hage says:

    Great article Deborah!

  3. an observer says:

    Wasn’t the entire building restored by an insurance company and not the owners after a gas main accident?

  4. Michael Higgins says:

    What happened to Mary Preston ( Schmidt) ? Seems Mary worked there forever… Even when it was Morley’s Drug! She was such a shining light with a beautiful personality to go with her gorgeous face! She was married to Dave Preston. Would love to hear from her and to know she’s doing fine!My name is Michael Higgins, I was the letter carrier downtown Rochester for 35 years…. Drop me a hello Mary😎

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