Brent’s Drugs: Keeping the ember burning

In Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound, we wrote about how New Orleans had preserved a thread to its past by keeping a historic streetcar running. For a short time, streetcars were the dominant mode of transportation in American cities. At the peak of ridership, New Orleans’s streetcars carried 148 million passengers a year. Streetcars fell out of fashion, though, and most cities opted to switch to motor vehicles. New Orleans kept its St. Charles Line open through the middle decades of the 20th century, even though no one seemed particularly interested in riding streetcars. Then, as the century drew to a close, people were suddenly interested in streetcars again. New Orleans began building new lines. More people wanted to ride. The St. Charles line had been the ember that made rekindling the fire possible.

Infrared view of a streetcar on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world. Library of Congress

The Mississippi Gulf Coast once had its own incredible streetcar network. But it was lost, as hurricanes and motor vehicles made the streetcar lines too expensive to maintain. Now residents of Gulfport, Biloxi, Long Beach and Pass Christian can only dream about riding along the shore in a state-of-the-art electric car with huge windows and a carved wooden ceiling. If only an ember had been kept alive there as well.

The Gulfport and Mississippi Coast Traction Company cars that once ran along the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Lucky for Jackson residents, one man and his partners are doing their part to keep an ember from the past burning. They don’t maintain a streetcar line. Instead, they have preserved a soda fountain — the culinary equivalent of the streetcar. The man is Brad Reeves, and the soda fountain is Brent’s Drugs.

Soda fountains once served a useful function in the city, providing a cheap, social place to have a handmade milkshake or a burger after school or church. The soda fountain even helped ease Jackson’s transition from wet to dry in the early part of the 20th century. Barkeeps with drink-making skills suddenly found themselves out of work. They took their skills to soda fountains, crafting non-alcoholic drinks for customers that delighted them a little more than a Coke poured from a can could.

Brad Reeves

Brent’s has been in operation since 1946, and Mr. Reeves has been the owner for a decade. You can’t get your prescription filled there, but you can get a tall milkshake or a cherry limeade. Ryan and I visited on a Sunday recently, and I was impressed by how many people were at the fountain hanging out. It was as busy as it might have been 60 years ago.

How easy would it have been for Brent’s to fade away like so many fun cultural relics have? But Mr. Reeves stepped up, and now we can all enjoy eating crispy skin-on fries in a bona fide soda fountain. Thanks for keeping the ember burning, Brad!