Ice cream parlors

This exhibit was created in collaboration with Emily Nelson, who completed her B.A. in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Spring 2015.


Several necessary establishments occupied Wisconsin towns at the turn of the 20th century: a blacksmith shop, a tavern, a bank, a drugstore. Other locations were novelty treasures, such as the ice cream parlor. Sometimes located within the drugstore, the ice cream parlor offered a sweet frozen dessert as well as a new social activity for all ages. From elegant parlors to sundae fights to a snack for study breaks, Wisconsin has many flavors of ice cream history.

In his journal of a canoe trip down the Wisconsin River with a group of friends, Preston Reynolds sketched the ice cream soda he stopped to enjoy in Sauk City. Log Book of Preston Reynolds, 1903, pages 14-15. Wisconsin Historical Society.

In his journal of a canoe trip down the Wisconsin River with a group of friends, Preston Reynolds sketched the ice cream soda he stopped to enjoy in Sauk City. Log Book of Preston Reynolds, 1903, pages 14-15. Wisconsin Historical Society.

Ice cream parlor proprietors had two options at the turn of the 20th century: craft their own ice cream from scratch or purchase brands churned out in a factory. Wisconsin was in luck when the mechanics of refrigerated transport were fine-tuned near the end of the 19th century. This technology allowed for the safe transport of cold foods to local businesses across the state. Refrigerated train cars and trucks kept ice cream from melting into soup. Big producers like Shurtleff in Janesville or Bendfelt in Milwaukee could ship their ice cream across the state to be scooped out in local parlors.

Shurtleff’s Ice Cream Factory, established in Janesville in 1878. This photo shows horses bringing milk cans to the factory in 1904. In 1969, George Shurtleff sold his ice cream business to Schoep’s Ice Cream in Madison. Hedberg Public Library.

Shurtleff’s Ice Cream Factory, established in Janesville in 1878. This photo shows horses bringing milk cans to the factory in 1904. In 1969, George Shurtleff sold his ice cream business to Schoep’s Ice Cream in Madison. Hedberg Public Library.

An employee of Bendfelt Ice Cream in Milwaukee carries two containers of ice cream to a refrigerated truck, 1935. Milwaukee Public Library.

An employee of Bendfelt Ice Cream in Milwaukee carries two containers of ice cream to a refrigerated truck, 1935. Milwaukee Public Library.

Ice cream was a treat meant for special occasions. People usually did not have a pail in their freezer but traveled to town for a scoop. Before cones were the keepers of the cream, frozen delights were served in tall soda glasses or swooping dishes. And flavor came in many varieties: signs boasted the availability of dozens of options, while syrups and toppings added even more pizzaz. Pharmacies and drugstores usually held a corner of their shop for a soda fountain, serving dessert just as easily as remedies. Other common locales for a soda fountain were confectionery shops and lunch counters.

John Milton Granger sits on a caned stool at the marble-topped counter of Sykes Drug Store in Milwaukee, 1890s. Note the medicine bottles in the glass case next to the soda fountain. Milwaukee Public Library.

John Milton Granger sits on a caned stool at the marble-topped counter of Sykes Drug Store in Milwaukee, 1890s. Note the medicine bottles in the glass case next to the soda fountain. Milwaukee Public Library.

Ice cream parlor decor screamed indulgence. Lamps dotted countertops every few paces while fancy dishware glittered from within glass cabinets. Backless stools lined the counter in the same fashion as a tavern, encouraging lone visitors to converse with the person stationed behind the counter. By the mid-20th century, some parlors featured jukeboxes and even gambling machines.

Lemke’s Ice Cream Parlour, Eau Claire, 1908. Chippewa Valley Museum.

Lemke’s Ice Cream Parlour, Eau Claire, 1908. Chippewa Valley Museum.

Seating area of George Bros.’ Confectionery, Manitowoc. Manitowoc Public Library.

Seating area of George Bros.’ Confectionery, Manitowoc. Manitowoc Public Library.

The world’s first ice cream sundae may have been scooped out at a soda fountain in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Since at least the 1970s, Two Rivers has continued a friendly — but serious — battle with Ithaca, New York for the title of “Birthplace of the Ice Cream Sundae.” The Wisconsin sundae origin story goes that, in 1881, Edward C. Berner was working at his soda fountain one Sunday when one of his regulars, George Hallauer, asked for an ice cream soda. The problem was the local ‘blue laws’ restricted the drinking of soda on Sundays. Choosing to compromise and respect the blue laws, Berner and Hallauer came up with an idea to pour soda syrup over a dish of ice cream. After rave reviews, Berner decided to add the creation to his menu, priced at a nickel.

Joseph Schmitt, Seymour Althen, Henry Willert, Howard Messerman and Hilary Rath eating ice cream in front of Ice Cream Sundae historical marker, Two Rivers. Photo by Hubert R. Wentorf. Lester Public Library.

Joseph Schmitt, Seymour Althen, Henry Willert, Howard Messerman and Hilary Rath eating ice cream in front of Ice Cream Sundae historical marker, Two Rivers. Photo by Hubert R. Wentorf. Lester Public Library.

In 1951, the University of Wisconsin-Madison opened its own ice cream parlor — the Babcock Hall Dairy Store — as a way to bring the work of the Food Science Department directly to the public. Researchers and students use milk from the University’s own dairy herd as well as nearby farms to craft ice cream and other treats.

Students drinking malts at Babcock Hall, 1952. UW-Madison Archives.

Students drinking malts at Babcock Hall, 1952. UW-Madison Archives.

Ice cream as a social experience lives on at Babcock Hall, even as many classic parlors in the state have disappeared. The Dairy Store continues to be a popular meeting place for college students looking to get away from stressful studying and a must-see spot for out-of-town visitors. A favorite point of conversation is to compare the list of flavors tried: Blue Moon (invented in Wisconsin!), Berry Alvarez, or the timeless favorite, vanilla.

Jeremy Menchik digs into a Babcock Hall ice cream cone, 1981. UW-Madison Archives.

Jeremy Menchik digs into a Babcock Hall ice cream cone, 1981. Photo by Norman Lenburg. UW-Madison Archives.

UPDATE: After we posted the photo of a young Jeremy Menchik enjoying ice cream at Babcock Hall, Bettie Landauer-Menchik wrote in to share details about her family’s longstanding connections to UW-Madison. She graduated as Bettie Landauer with a BA in Political Science and Indian Studies in 1969 and a Master’s in Education in 1979, her son Daniel Menchik graduated with a BA in Political Science and Journalism in 1999, and son Jeremy (pictured above) received his PhD in Political Science in 2011.


Sources

The images in this online exhibit come from the following digital collections:

References

3 Comments

  1. Jeff Herringa:

    Sounds Interesting! My family used to go to a few candy stores and ice cream parlors in Fond du Lac when I was a kid. But, most of this stuff died out by the time I graduated from high school in the late 1980’s.

    A teaching colleague of mine said he once worked in an ice cream parlor in Phoenix, Arizona in the late 1960’s after he moved from Lubbock, Texas after high school as well.

  2. William Wilson Peter:

    Reminds me of my Mom years ago remembering that when she was undergraduate at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge ca.1939), her boyfriend worked in the campus dairy cafe, where the university sold ice cream products made from the college of agriculture’s dairy heard’s milk. She said that she gained a lot of weight that year!

  3. Shep Brown:

    I am originally from Boston, now living in Florida and I am wondering if you were any relation to the Nelson Brothers from Eau Clair Wisconsin who in the 19th century had a store there? Some of my relations had the name or part of their name as Nelson.
    Thanking you in anticipation.
    Yours,
    Shep Brown
    shep@shepbrown.com

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