Up A Country Lane: Remembering Bill Penn

Evelyn Birkby

I recently learned that Bill Penn has passed away. He was a wonderful man and a friend of our family for all the years we have lived in Sidney.

Six years ago Bill and I sat down together to talk about his business, Penn Drug. Here is the column I wrote after that visit.

When out of town people come to visit Robert and me, we enjoy taking them for lunch at Penn Drug. They find the experience as memorable as anything else that happens during their time in Sidney.

Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson stopped by recently and so did Jane Palmer, staff writer for the Omaha World-Herald. Carrie de Silva, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on rural women, came from England to see what rural Iowa is all about. Jerome Thompson from the Iowa State Historical Society Museum in Des Moines looks in on us whenever he is in the area.

Penn Drug has been a delight for these visitors and many more. Its vintage soda fountain is a major attraction. Customers sitting on stools at the marble-topped counter enjoy old-time treats including phosphates, hand-dipped ice cream, malts, milk shakes, and hot fudge sundaes. At small tables back near the pharmacy, diners can order sandwiches with chips and either sweet or dill pickles. Of course, Bill and his staff take very good care of the medicine needs of the people of Sidney.

Penn Drug Company is the oldest operating pharmacy in Iowa, and certainly the oldest that has been owned for more than 150 years by a single family.

Bill’s ancestor Dr. John Newton Penn was born in Pennsylvania and studied medicine. He came to Iowa in 1855 and was so impressed by the rich farmland and the young town of Sidney that he and his family settled here. Soon he had a successful medical practice.

In 1863, Dr. Penn purchased the drug stock of Dr. O.W. Sykes, a Sidney businessman who wanted to move to the new town of Hamburg. Dr. Penn built a drug store on the west side of the Sidney square that included a medical office on the balcony.

Due to failing eyesight, Dr. Penn passed on management of the drug store in 1876 to his son Alphonso Valdeze Penn, known as "Phon." Phon had studied at Tabor College, ten miles north of Sidney, and became one of the first registered pharmacists in Iowa. He filled prescriptions with powders, elixirs, capsules, and lozenges.

The next member of the family to join Penn Drug was Phon’s son Alphonso Valdeze Penn, Jr., or "Val." Val became a pharmacist in 1910 and assumed leadership of the business in 1925, working for many years alongside his wife Christena.

Their son was our Bill Penn. He completed his pharmacy studies at the University of Nebraska in 1949 and took his place in the Sidney drug store. Bill and his wife Patricia became owners of Penn Drug in 1970. Their son Jeffery returned to Sidney to manage the store after completing his master’s degree studies at Indiana University and the Eastman School of Music.

Jeff had been a Cub Scout when I was a leader. For years after that, whenever I came into the store, he would greet me with, "Hello, Den Mother!" He was also a member of Robert’s Troop 77 here in Sidney. Bill served for several years as one of the "group of citizens" that was the troop’s chartering organization.

In recent years I have looked forward to seeing Bill at church and often when I have gone to the drug store to enjoy lunch. During football season, he would wear his red jacket in honor of his beloved University of Nebraska team.

We have been blessed to have had Bill and the rest of the Penn family as a foundation of our community. Penn Drug will carry on as a perfect place for visitors to see the best of Sidney, and to get a sweet taste of the way things used to be. Even so, it will not seem the same without Bill’s friendly face greeting us and helping us feel at home.

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The Penn Drug staff prepares a special item each day for lunch. When I interviewed Bill Penn six years ago, he told me that one of the best-selling sandwiches was filled with a delicious egg salad made with hard cooked eggs, chopped sweet pickles, mustard, mayonnaise, salt and pepper, and a dab of paprika for color. Customers can choose whether to have their sandwich on white or wheat bread, toasted if they wish. Served with either sweet or dill pickles and a small bag of chips, it is the perfect drug store counter meal, especially if you order an ice cream sundae for dessert.

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