Somewhere in a ravine in Hastings, not far from the Wisconsin border, a Minnesota man fished out an old, dusty bottle.
It was roughly rectangular, made of thick, cloudy glass, with a few happy-looking clovers growing inside. The stamped surface read “FRANK W. FINCH, CITY DRUG STORE, HASTINGS, MINN.,” and the date on the bottom read “Feb. 5, 1892.” Reddit user Kyle_erick posted a photo of the vessel, saying a buddy had found it.
The commenters quickly begin to speculate. Whatever is -- or was -- inside, they say, it’s probably no longer safe for consumption.
“Probably wasn’t very safe back then, either,” another quips. Probably it’s cocaine or heroin -- your “Tincture of Laudanum” or your “Granny’s Rheumatiz [sic] Elixir.” If it belonged to a pharmacist in the 1890s, they say, it could have been anything -- but whatever it was, it was probably buck wild.
There may be no way to tell what was in the bottle – the Minnesota Historical Society says the label was likely made of paper, and therefore reduced to nothing by now -- but there’s plenty out there on the man who sold it: Frank W. Finch. He wasn’t just a Hastings pharmacist. He was the Hastings pharmacist. And nobody was laughing about Granny’s Rheumatiz back then.
When Finch first took over his father’s drugstore, there were hardly any doctors in town, let alone druggists. The backlog of sick residents was so severe that he often found himself diagnosing as often as he dispensed medicine -- and occasionally, in case of emergency, administering treatments himself.
He ran that pharmacy for 60 years, and if the numerous written accounts of him in the Hastings Gazette, Hastings Herald, and the Bulletin of Pharmacy are to be believed, everyone trusted him… with nearly everything. Men came for him for financial advice as often as they came for tonics. On top of running the pharmacy, he also ran the First National bank, and, for a short time, the city -- as its mayor.
He suffered a stroke in 1931, and that was the beginning of the end for him. His health quickly deteriorated, and he died in 1934, “peacefully,” after a “long illness,” according to his obituary in the Hastings Gazette.
The doors of his drugstore shuttered in 1935. At the time, it was the oldest drugstore in the state, and Hastings had a somber moment of reflection when the doors locked for the last time.
“It was quiet there Monday,” the article in the Hastings Herald reads. It describes the shelves as nearly empty, notes the “queer old clock” that apparently hung above the prescription desk -- though it failed to mention what about it was so queer.
The remaining products were being hauled away -- toothpaste and detective magazines, along with “boneset, burdock seed, sassafras bark, lump alum cubeb berries, and salt petre.” Shelves still bore their headings: “Merchants’ Gargling Oil,” “California Wines,” “Reliable Elixirs.” Perhaps the mysterious bottle was among the remaining detritus.
The account is written with a kind of love for a lost era, where, for better or worse, the pharmacy was a place of trust and calm rather than what it is now: just one more store trying to sell you something. There were no “flaming red and yellow” posters hocking medicines, it says. There was no “ballyhoo of closing out cut rates.”
“To the end, the store retained an air of quiet dignity. It passed out of existence as a gentleman of the old school should: quietly, without pomp or circumstance, with dignity.”
Dakota County Historical Society staff says the Finch building in downtown Hastings, built by Finch and his father in 1880, still stands exactly where it was. It’s a handsome three-story brick building, narrow and terracotta brown. An Edward Jones sits on the first floor now.
Finch’s lost medicine bottle is a reminder of the so-called “dignity” of the time. Whatever was in that bottle – and dang it, it might have been heroin -- one thing is certain: People trusted it would cure them.