America's oldest pharmacy: Carl's Drug keeps on ticking

March 19, 2007

John Quincy Adams had been earning his annual $25,000 salary as the sixth U.S. President less than two months when Dr. Adam Carl opened his drugstore in the small south central Pennsylvania town of Greencastle.

Despite six relocations, Carl's Drug Store is still firmly woven into the business and civic fabric of Greencastle. And its amazing 182-year longevity has earned it the unofficial honor of being America's oldest pharmacy continuously serving the same community.

A descendant of German immigrants, Adam Carl was born in 1800 in Carlisle, Pa. As a boy, he worked in a local pharmacy where he became interested in medicine. By the age of 24, he'd become a pharmacist and opened the Greencastle drugstore. He then studied medicine and became a doctor. For the next 62 years, he served the good folks around Greencastle. He often packed his apothecary kit and saddled up his horse to treat homebound patients within a 30-mile radius, said Bonnie Shockey, president of the board of directors of Greencastle's Allison-Antrim Museum.

Greencastle was mostly outside of the American mainstream, but the Civil War paid an unwelcome visit in 1863 when Union and Confederate armies clashed at nearby Gettysburg. Adam Carl and his physician son George tended to some of the wounded on both sides. For example, George treated one of two Union soldiers caught in a Confederate ambush. The other man died in the ambush, becoming the first Union soldier killed north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Although the implements used at Carl's Drug may seem quaint today, the pharmacy always kept up with the latest practice innovations. Charles installed a special cabinet to house medicines for common ailments when over-the-counter items began to appear in the late 1800s. Carl's also caused a stir when it hooked up Greencastle's first telephone. Annual service cost $24 in 1906.

Pharmacist Frank Ervin purchased Carl's Drug Store in 1974 from Edward Carl, the founder's great-grandson, who was also an R.Ph. The first non-Carl owner was no stranger to the business. As a young boy, he had worked at the drugstore where his father, Richard, was the longtime assistant R.Ph. Bitten by the pharmacy bug, he earned a pharmacy degree and was then hired by Carl's in 1973.

Ervin moved the drugstore from its downtown location about eight years ago because he needed a parking lot. He remembers his father's day when 5-gal. jugs of cough syrup were mixed by rolling them across the floor and pills were coated and then wrapped in paper and tied with string.

Fortunately for later generations, the Carls were packrats who seemed to save everything. Many of the tools of Carl's trade have been preserved as part of a permanent display at the Allison-Antrim Museum.