Higger’s Drug Store, First in the Area to Carry Penicillin: ‘More than a Pharmacy’ to Residents of Chevy Chase DC
Note from the current HCCDC Board: The following is a recently re-discovered oral history prepared around the year 1999 by early board members of Historic Chevy Chase DC. It was based on an interview with Marie Silverman Higger, who died in October 2000 at age 95, about a year after the interview. Mrs. Higger and Samuel Frank Higger were married 63 years at the time of his death in September 1988 at the age of 84. Together they ran Higger’s Drug Store in the space now occupied by CVS next to Politics & Prose. Washington Post articles recall the pride Sam Higger took in his role as pharmacist and that his was the “the first in the city to have penicillin.” They sold the store in 1969 but it continued to operate as Higger’s until CVS bought it in 1996.
Located in the 5800 block of Connecticut Avenue Northwest, Higger’s Drug Store was much more than a pharmacy to the residents of Chevy Chase. When Sam Higger sold his drug store in Baltimore and bought the building on Connecticut Avenue NW in 1930, it had been a real “country store” — long and narrow with an old stove in the middle of the room and exposed pipes on the ceiling. It was surrounded by small stores — a shoe store, a tiny grocery — all belonging to one landlord.
Sam Higger remodeled the future Higger’s Drug Store and installed a huge soda fountain, which soon became a popular meeting place for Chevy Chase residents. They came on Sunday mornings to buy the newspaper and spend afternoons with neighbors lunching on 25-cent sandwiches and 5-cent sodas. Until WW II broke out and all businesses were required to close their doors by 9 p.m., Higger’s stayed open until midnight. People could reach the drug store via the Connecticut Avenue streetcar for 7 cents or by bus for a quarter [and it also made home deliveries]. President Harry Truman was one of Higger’s more well-known customers. [Lyndon B. Johnson was also a frequent customer when he lived on 30th place in Forest Hills.] And according to the Washington Post, Higger’s served generations of middle schoolers who flocked to its candy counter between 3 and 3:30 weekdays.
Despite his success, however, it was not without some apparent setbacks that Sam Higger first opened his doors. Mrs. Higger recalls the neighborhood cop who welcomed the store to Chevy Chase with a warning that there might be some opposition to a Jewish man opening a store in a “restricted” neighborhood that at the time discouraged Jews and African Americans from residing and working in Chevy Chase. Even Father Sayer from nearby Blessed Sacrament Church admonished Higger for staying open on the Sabbath, something a “good Christian” would not do. But Higger responded that he was a “good Christian of Jewish faith.” To prove it, he sent the church a contribution. He had no intention of leaving, he said, but would set a good example of Christian behavior. To this end he dedicated his life. Father Sayer and Sam Higger became fast friends and Sayer’s son eventually began working in the drug store. [Note: The identify of Father Sayer could not be confirmed. Blessed Sacrament administrative offices could find no record of a priest by the name of Sayer, 3/28/2019]
Marie Higger occasionally helped her husband in the store as did their daughter, [Veda — note: the couple also had another daughter, Lorraine Higger Alper, who died in 1954], but it was Sam Higger himself who ran the show. He had very definite ideas about how a business should be run and the residents of Chevy Chase benefitted from his efforts. Marie remembers her husband as a tough taskmaster demanding perfection from himself as well as from his employees. “There was only one way to do business and that was his way.” No prescription ever left the store without being checked, double checked, and rechecked. Most importantly, Higger treated his customers extremely well. He earned himself a reputation for his acts of kindness and compassion toward his customers. Occasionally people unable to pay would come to Higger’s Drug Store and Sam Higger made sure that they obtained the goods they needed at reduced or indefinitely deferred cost.
Higger was very active in Washington and in the community of Chevy Chase. He once taught at Howard University and at the University of Maryland. He helped African American pharmacists establish pharmacies in their own neighborhoods and taught them proper business practices, often lending them money to get started. [According to Higger’s obituary, he also helped established the Sibley Hospital pharmacy.]
Higger served as president of the [Chevy Chase Community Council from from 1946 to 1963] and of the Hebrew Home for the Aged, and he was founder of the Jewish Social Services. He was active in stopping the proposed demolition of E.V. Brown School [slated for sale to commercial interests] as well as a number of other important properties scheduled for demolition. [The E.V. Brown School was where the Chevy Chase Community Center now stands.)
During WWII, when fathers were away and mothers were working, juvenile delinquency became a problem in Chevy Chase and throughout the city. Sam Higger went before Congress pleading to save these institutions that would give purpose and discipline to the lives of children. As a result, the E.V. Brown School was renovated. Part of this renovation included a community center and library. A gym was constructed and programs for children and adults were established. Kids were able to get involved in their community and helped in the war effort by rolling bandages and performing other services. These Chevy Chase programs became pilots for similar programs in neighborhoods throughout Washington. For his efforts, Sam Higger was given special recognition by Congress.
Mrs. Higger followed her husband’s example by becoming a volunteer at the [Florence Crittenton] Home for Unwed Mothers where she was a confidant, adviser, and counselor.
The Higgers occupied a number of apartments and houses in Chevy Chase. One of these houses was located on Nevada [Street] near Western Avenue; another on Legation Street NW. Typical of the other houses in the area, only one bathroom served a home with three bedrooms. The surrounding detached houses were of the widely varying architectural styles for which Chevy Chase is noted. As now, many elderly people resided in Chevy Chase in the ‘30s. In addition, many high-ranking military personnel came to live in Chevy Chase. There were few stores in the neighborhood and no chain groceries. Blumenthal grocery at the corner of McKinley [Street] and Connecticut [Avenue] served the area. The Arcade, the second-oldest shopping mall in the country, built in 1925, housed a variety of shopping [options] for the neighborhood. Chevy Chase Bank occupied the Riggs Bank building in the ‘30s. The Avalon Theater, built in 1922, the oldest continuously operating movie theater in Washington, DC, provided entertainment for the residents. A hardware store occupied the present Monarch Paint site.
Mrs. Higger remembers Chevy Chase as a “city within itself” with its own government and post office. It was basically unaffected by the changes brought to Washington, DC, following Roosevelt’s arrival with his New York entourage and retained a true neighborhood feeling.
In 1969, Higger’s Drug Store was sold. Sam Higger died in 1988 [at the age of 84]. Up to 400 people attended his funeral, many of them African American and many of them unknown to Marie Higger or her daughter. At the funeral, Marie and [Veda] learned, often for the first time, about countless acts of kindness, aid, and compassion.
Read a May 1996 column in the Washington Post by Fred Hiatt about Higger’s:
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