Over eighty-five years ago back in August of 1932, a young man, one year out of the UW College of Pharmacy, took a chance and bought a defunct drug store in Amery where he set up business as Chet Johnson Drugs. When he opened the store, he had $40.00 in cash to begin operations. He quickly became known among his wholesalers as 1/12th of a dozen Chet. Two years later, he married his high school sweetheart, Ellie, and together they raised two sons and adopted two daughters.
In the early years, Chet bought a new ice cream freezer from McKesson Drug Company, then, as now, the major wholesaler for the store. This purchase kept the store going, with 5 cent malts, and 23 cent quarts of ice cream — a real treat in the ‘30s. In the early ‘40s, Chet expanded the store with a 20 foot addition, and in 1957 he purchased the building next door, and built a newer, bigger store. All this took many long hours and a lot of hard work to “grow the business”. At the same time, Chet became on of the biggest promoters in Amery. He had many, often crazy, promotions at the store — free ice cream cones, nickel coffee with free refills, kids contests for scooters or bikes. While these were store promotions, they were also a way to draw folks to the city. Chet was a firm believer that Amery had been good to him, and he would do what he could to return the favor.
All of Chet and Ellie’s children grew up working in the store, as soon as they were old enough to stock shelves and sweep floors. David and Bruce both chose to go into pharmacy, and graduated from South Dakota State College of Pharmacy. They both came back to the home town to work for their dad. In 1970, Chet and Ellie sold the store to “the boys” as they became known, and began spending some months away in the winter to relax and enjoy life. A year later, the boys bought the building next door, and once again, expanded the store. During this expansion the soda fountain, which had been part of the store since the ‘30s, was removed — real ice cream seemed to be on the way out, as the quicker, drive-thru places were becoming more popular. Nickel coffee remained an everyday draw, and a gathering center for many folks. David had four kids, and Bruce two, and their kids grew up as they had, working in the store as soon as they were old enough. Randy Olson, a local fellow who also worked at Chet’s as a teen, returned to Amery as a Minnesota Pharmacy graduate, and came back to Chet’s as a third pharmacist. The ideas instilled in the Johnson brothers as children remained and promoting not only the business, but Amery and the surrounding community continued to be important to them. Both Dave and Bruce have been very active in many community organizations and served on many different boards.
Bruce’s son Matt graduated from the South Dakota State University College of Pharmacy in 1990, and came home to work for “the boys” as they are still known. In 2000, he took the same giant step his dad and uncle had done thirty years before, and purchased the store. At the same time, he and his wife Julie, also an SDSU Pharmacy grad, opened an outpatient clinic pharmacy in the Amery Regional Medical Center. In 2004, another remodeling project was underway, when Matt gutted the building next door, and put in a new soda fountain. Once again, folks are nostalgic, and enjoying old fashioned ice cream treats! The new place adjoins the store, and is appropriately named Ellie’s — a tribute to Matt’s grandma. Nickel coffee is still available, along with cookies, gourmet coffee, espresso drinks, bakery items, smoothies, and many flavors of ice cream! At the same time, a complete remodel of the store was done, changing the entire appearance of Chet’s. Matt’s sister Sarah is the business manager of Chet’s. What started as a risk during the Depression has turned into a third generation family business, solid with tradition that is still strong!