Cooling Off At Cordray's

Everything Old Is New Again

By Kathleen Maca
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The Cordray family has been a staple in Galveston for more than 150 years, and one of its most famous members owned the original Cordray Drug Store. Now, Michael and Ashley Cordray, stars of the television show Restoring Galveston on the Magnolia Network, have given new life to the tradition.

The new Cordray Drug Store is an homage to the original of the same name which stood at 1501 Postoffice Street at the southwest corner of Fifteenth Street. It was owned by Michael’s great-grand-uncle Edmund Lawrence Cordray (1879-1965) and wife Mary Agnes Hancock (1881-1961).

That building, lost to demolition in 1977, was a registered Texas Historic Landmark and had a history as colorful as the land where it as built. The site is steeped in history.

In the years preceding the Civil War, John S. Sydnor, one of Galveston’s early business and community leaders, traded slaves on a large auction block at the site. Its proximity to the waterfront and roads inland is said to have contributed to the large crowds the slave market drew, adding to Sydnor’s considerable fortune.

In 1866, the cement auction block was used as part of the foundation of a carpenter’s shop built by J. R. Alexander. It was “rebuilt” in 1875 (possibly due to damage from the same hurricane that devastated Indianola), and the building was expanded in 1899.

A two-story portion of the building, with seven rooms and one bathroom, served as the residence. The original one-room frame structure, built from native wood and topped with a tin roof, provided space for the business.

By 1910, a German family—Mr. and Mrs. Jensen and their three children—moved into the property. The patriarch ran a tailor shop, and his wife operated a grocery on the ground floor. Their son Henry worked in real estate.

Placeholder imageJust a few doors down, at 1515 Avenue E, lived Margaret Hancock and her three sons, as well as Margaret’s daughter Mary, Mary’s husband Edmund Cordray (Michael’s great-grand-uncle), and the couple’s four children; and Paul Cordray, half-brother of Edmund.

After working as a pharmacist at several locations around the island, Edmund Cordray had the opportunity to purchase the building at 1501-1503 Postoffice in 1918, and he established the Cordray Drug Store.

Though the exterior of the building remained virtually unchanged—other than the addition of tin signs advertising Coca-Cola, 7-up, and Gulf gasoline, which was sold from a single pump—the interior saw minor changes: A wall was erected inside to create a small storage area, and shelves were put up to store the drug items. A soda fountain was also installed where Purity ice cream, locally made, was served.

Cordray Drug Store became a meeting place for locals and served as a U.S. military service registration location during wartime. During its first year, Cordray and his friends met at the store in the evenings to discuss World War I, referring to European maps tacked on the walls on which they tracked the course of advance and attack of the Armed Forces.

He later studied optometry and equipped a room to the side of the drugstore as a space for fitting eyeglasses.

Extremely active in the local Catholic church, Cordray had the honor of having the Award of the Knight of the Holy Sepulchre bestowed upon him by Pope Pius XII.

As busy as these endeavors kept him, Cordray then pursued a hobby that would reoccur in the family generations later - flipping houses. He began to purchase houses and renovated the carpentry and plumbing before reselling them. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he leased out the operation of his store and spent the remainder of his life restoring homes and traveling.

On August 25, 1965, Cordray died at the age of 86, and the family sold the store. Two years later, the Texas Historical Commission (THC) presented a medallion in honor of the building’s history to its then-owner, Lee Valentine.

The city condemned the building in 1977 and forced the owner to tear it down. The historic medallion, which had been placed at the drugstore in 1967, was given to Cordray’s daughter, Florence Beaulieu.

The East End Historical Society leased the lot and received permission to move the 1895 Victor Gustafson cottage to the site to be used as an office and meeting place for the historical group.

Jean Lafitte 

In 1985, the THC erected a historic marker in front of the cottage, which includes a brief history of the Gustafson home, as well as the Cordray Drug Store that preceded it on the site.

Some 30-plus years later, Ashley Cordray—whose dream was to own one of the island’s historic corner store buildings uniquely tied in with her husband’s Galveston family history—began to set her sights on restoring a corner store, and bringing a new business to its neighborhood.

The property she found was the former Paganucci Market building at the corner of 39th Street and Avenue L. Built in 1922, when family-owned stores were a staple of Galveston life, it was listed in insurance records as a dwelling over a mercantile.

“So many of these stores have become residences over the years, but we thought that a commercial space could really help to tie the neighborhood back to a central location and benefit the community as a whole,” Michael Cordray said.

Rather than a traditional drugstore like his ancestor ran, Michael and Ashley decided to keep things a bit more fun.

“We had to figure out what type of business to put in the space, and re-opening CDS sounded like a fun way to tie back into some of the island’s history. Many of the local drug stores had sweets, ice creams or a lunch counter. Plus, Ashley really likes ice cream,” he added with a smile.

Remaining true to the building’s history was key for Michael and Ashley.

“We wouldn’t dream of getting rid of the ghosting of the shelves,” Ashley said as she pointed to the lines on the beadboard walls where shelves once held groceries.

Michael said they’re particularly pleased to be able to display some photos of the original store’s interior, taken when it was in operation as a corner store (Paganini Grocery).

“I think in today’s modern restaurant/ice cream shop world, you’d likely expect to see a big bright wall with colorful menus,” he said.

“Here, it’s all about the history, and we pay homage to the original grocery store by covering the shelves with cans of condensed milk and boxes of cereal and cookies—all the ingredients you can actually find in our ice cream.”

After nearly two years of waiting, with obstacles such as the COVID pandemic, the Cordray Drug Store is finally open.

“Staffing and finding time to actually open was also a challenge,” Michael said. “We realized there’s never going to be the perfect time, so we just had to dive in and make it finally happen.”

The couple’s innate creativity came in handy when they decided to serve hand-rolled ice cream in their shop. They took on the challenge of learning the technique to do it themselves.

Jean Lafitte 

“We learned in our own kitchen,” he said. “We had a machine delivered and set it up the same day. Like most things, we just figured it out—from the right blend of milk and cream to the method.”

Ashley said the old-fashioned way of producing ice cream makes it even more authentic and fun for them and patrons.

“Rolling it is just putting a fun spin on things and making it as fresh as it can possibly be,” she said.

On a recent visit, Ashley said she overheard a woman who entered the shop saying she’d heard the TV couple might actually be there in person. Then, following a squeal worthy of a fan, she called out, “There they are! We watch y’all on TV.” Ashley graciously took it in stride, not missing a beat of her ice cream process and responded with a smile: “We’re glad to see you, too.”

The Cordrays clarify that “a lot of the locals from the immediate neighborhood have no idea about the show. They’re just excited about having a neighborhood ice cream parlor.”

When asked by a visitor if the Cordray’s two young daughters are aware that the family owns an ice cream shop, Michael—a proud dad—responds that his daughter, Elle, “wants ice cream far more often than she should. Every time we start to get close, we hear, ‘Are we going for ice cream?’ from the back seat. Emma just turned one year old, so she doesn’t really understand it, yet, but she does get excited when she sees those rolls coming her way.”

Now open mostly on weekends, the pair hopes to increase staff and expand their hours.

“We would absolutely like to host some events in the near future,” she said, “and we recently started doing an event on Wednesday evenings with live music where we air one of the current season’s episodes, which will eventually expand into a movie night.”

The response to the shop “has been overwhelming in the best of ways,” she says. On opening weekend, the pair served 100 customers per day, and increased to 200 per day by the second weekend.

In addition to their television show, real estate business and Cordray Drug Store, Michael hinted that there is “another business venture coming from us soon to the island’s east end.”

Until that reveal, the couple is carrying on their island family’s traditions in ways that would have made Edmond proud.

You can find updated hours of operation on the Cordray Drug Store Facebook page