Dear Call Box: There used to be a building near the old Riverside Viaduct with a 666 Cold Relief Sign. I know it was demolished, but I’d like to know its history.

 

B.G., East Arlington

Dear B.G.: That three-story white building was a landmark at the foot of the old Acosta Bridge until it was torn down in 1989 to make way for the new span. Even more eye-catching was the prominent 666 sign in large red elevated letters on top of the building and emblazoned on the side.

The company was formed by pharmacist T.S. Roberts Sr. in Monticello, Fla., in the 1890s. Hence the name Monticello Drug. Co., which was incorporated in 1908. Roberts patented a quinine medicine that was used to treat malaria. Even with its bitter taste, the product was very popular.

As for that infamous 666, it had nothing to do with the mark of the beast in the Book of Revelation.

The first prescription was written on an order pad with the number 666 for an African-American minister with a very bad case of the flu, said Scott Foster, manager of New Genesis/Monticello Drug, which took over the company’s drug lines. (Another version said the minister suffered from malaria.) Whatever the case, it worked so well that members of his congregation started asking for “that prescription No. 666,” Foster said Friday.

“Its initial popularity was very strong in the rural black community, and it grew from there,” he said.

One account said it was sent to the patent office unnamed, and an employee simply named it for the number on the prescription pad, which was No. 666. A 1979 Jacksonville Journal story said Roberts chose it as the identifying name and began marketing the patent medicine for relief of malaria.

As people stopped taking it for malaria, they began taking it for colds and fever. It took off, and the name didn’t hurt its recognition factor.

“At one time the company was bigger than Vicks, and growth was explosive,” Foster said, adding that the government started buying it in vast amounts to treat malaria.

As Monticello created more products, they became part of the 666 family.

Roberts moved the company to Jacksonville in 1908 because of its transportation facilities. The red-brick building that it moved into around 1919 was built before 1896, said historian Wayne Wood. It housed the Cudahy Meat Packing Co. from at least 1896 to 1910, he said.

It was a location that was ideal for a warehouse because it was in a commercial area near the rail lines, Wood said. When Henry Flagler built the first railroad bridge across the St. Johns River, it made it easy for the train to roll up to the warehouses, load the product and cross the bridge.

Monticello used the building for manufacturing, storing and shipping, Wood said.

At some point the brick was painted white, but whether it was in its red brick or white paint stage, the 666 numbers were always prominently displayed. Wood said he marveled at the hand-painted sign.

The original formula hasn’t been available in decades, Foster said. No one can make the old formula that was 40 percent alcohol and contained codeine, quinine, a cough suppressant and a very strong laxative, he said.

“It would clean you out, break your fever and put you to bed,” he said. “Some people would buy it if was still around, and a lot of people would say that’s dangerous stuff and shouldn’t be on the shelf.”

Its modern formulation, without the alcohol and other potent ingredients, survived for a while as mainly a generic daytime cough suppressant, Foster said.

When Roberts died in the mid-1940s, interest in the drug waned and products like Vicks 44 and Sudafed became mainstays for people with the sniffles and sore throats, a 2000 Florida Times-Union story said. Other family members took over the company after his death.

Henry E. Dean III, great-grandson of the founder, his younger brother, Tom, and two cousins assumed control in 1996, and the company became New Genesis/Monticello Drugs. Henry Dean has since retired.

There is an ironic note to the razing of its landmark building in 1989. It was decided to knock down its 666 sign on a Sunday because there was less traffic coming across the bridge and over exit ramps.

Today the company has only a very small footprint in Jacksonville, Foster said. There is no warehouse or manufacturing plant here — only a small office. Its product line includes throat lozenges, internal deodorant tablets, laxatives, ear care products and hemorrhoid cream. It acquired and still manufactures Norwich Aspirin.

While its products are available in some drugstores across the country, the easiest way for a Jacksonville resident to find one is to order it from the newgenesismonticellodrug.com website, from Amazon or to ask a pharmacist, Foster said.

If you have a question about Jacksonville’s history, call (904) 359-4622 or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.

Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128