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Saturday, September 2, 2017

Three Ice-Cream Memories:

Scorching Hot Day, Jim Dueber & I Race for an Ice-Cream Cone. He wins! 

This was preschool. I was four. The preschool program was in the nice Hamline Playground building at Lafond and Snelling—four blocks from my house. I have a few vague memories of my participation. I might have been a fiddler in our rendition of “Old King Cole.” I remember graduating on the stage at Wilson High School one block from my house. Well, all I really remember is that the stage lights were too bright for me to see into the vast space out front--to see my mother. I do not remember how I got to preschool or got home each day (three days a week, I think). I bet one of my sisters or my mom walked me each day. What I do remember clearly is the scorching hot day when our teacher took us outside, lined us up on the sidewalk facing south along Snelling, and told us to race around the block. Meanwhile she would go to Madelon's ice-cream shop and buy a cone for the winner. Now, I know she had to be dying in the heat and craved an ice cream cone for herself—which she got. But that day, we thought she was just helping us have fun. The problem is we all knew, well at least I knew what would happen. Jim Dueber and I would be the fastest. Even the teacher knew that because she put us bigger little kids in the second row to start the race. Sure enough, Jim and I finished before anybody else was even two-thirds of the way around the block. But, I knew before we started that I could not win. We had raced and played and competed at high speed; I could be no better than close. I wanted that cone but knew I couldn't have it. My excuse is that Jim was born in January, almost 4 and a half months before me. Let me see, I was about 50 months old. I had reason to run 9 percent slower than he. I was only several paces behind him when we got back to the corner of Blair and Snelling. No teacher, no ice-cream cone. We waited for the other kids, looked both ways, raced across Lafond to the ice-cream shop. “You finished already! ?”

She looked totally surprised as she took the first bite of her cone while the man made the double-decker for the winner, Jim. The rest of us tried to be good sports as we watched Jim devour it—there is no way to share an ice-cream cone, especially when the eating is in a race with the melting. I swallowed my competitive pride.

Jim was a new friend. We went from preschool to kindergarten and eight years of grade school together. We parted ways at high schools, but by that time we had built what would be a life-long friendship. At some point in the early grades I became the faster. I never risked our friendship by bragging about the change, nor did I ask him to buy me the ice-cream cone—the one I can never forget.

Northfield, because Mom said, “It's the only place you can still get a 5-cent ice-cream cone!” 

The town of Northfield, Minnesota lay along our route from St. Paul to Nerstrand where Mom's sister lived with her husband Johnny and son, my cousin, Roger. The town's fame came from it's two excellent colleges and it's being a place where Jessie James robbed the bank. Before I knew about the colleges, but after I knew a little bit about Jessie James I knew that any time we drove through in the summer we would stop to buy ice-cream cones for the seven of us. I believe the place was on the main street and highway through the center of town—on the right side as we headed south. There is not much more to say about this than the reason. (I think it was more of an excuse, because Mom usually needed an excuse to buy anything that wasn't an absolute necessity.) She declared—so it had to be true—that this was the one and only place where you could still buy an ice-cream cone for 5 cents. Ten cents was robbery in her mind. After the few minutes it took to scoop out the seven cones and pay our 35 cents, we were on our way southward to Nerstrand. 

There are Seven Slices in a Quart of Ice Cream.

This memory probably spans my life from the late forties and early fifties. I believe by the late fifties, when I was finishing grade school and went onto high school, we bought our ice cream in half-gallon cartons. It became common to find some ice cream in the refrigerator. By that time we had a refrigerator with a full-width freezer so there was room for ice-cream. About that time we also bought a used chest-shaped freezer for the basement, so there was plenty of room in the house for frozen meat, vegetables, and (gradually) a snack or two. My mother had gone to work at the Brown & Bigelow calendar factory—gradually increasing her commitment as she became one of the experienced and well-trained “girls” in the factory warehouse. Soon she did what she always described as back-breaking-hard work year-round—often with lots of overtime in the months leading up to the New Year. That meant there was not only more freezer space in the house, but also there was more money to go around. Mom and Dad even started doubling their housing payments each month so they could retire the mortgage earlier. Ice cream became a common treat.

Before this, however, things were different. As an adult I came to understand that payday's money was for scrimping, and a little package of luxury from the grocery store was as important to Mom and Dad as to us kids. We kids had nothing to complain about. We were well fed and clothed. We could see that our Frigidaire refrigerator had a tiny freezer in the top middle with room for a row of bottled milk on each side. Ice cream was a payday treat. We could see there was no place to keep it frozen.

Twice a month on payday Dad would take Mom's shopping list to Schmidt's grocer store and butcher shop at the corner of Van Buren and Snelling. I often went along (Mr. Schmidt on the grocery side often gave me a piece of candy). Dad would not only buy from the list, but he would always look to see if there were any fruit or vegetables in the window of quality at a good price. Usually there were some browning bananas he could buy at a discount. He might also pick up a box of Colorado peaches, or other fruit and vegetables he had special ordered in quantity for canning. On the butcher side, the other Mr. Schmidt would go over the meat options with Dad who would choose the cuts to bring home. But, always, always, Dad would come home with a quart of ice cream.

Typical ice-cream packaging of the time. The quart package that came to our house each payday looked like the one that sits here under the pint and next to the half-gallon.

We sat down to dinner as soon as Dad got home. I believe the ice cream sat on a shelf in the refrigerator. When dinner was done, Mom brought the ice cream out. It was still hard enough to hold its shape when she opened the carton and exposed the complete rectangular block. The ice cream sat seductively on a large plate. She sliced the block perfectly into seven pieces (as only she could do), then served us each our slice. Let me tell you, this was a treat, a tradition, a modest ceremony. It wasn't that we felt deprived of ice cream for the two weeks. It was that this was a treat worth waiting for. Our most popular flavors were a cherry and walnut mix called Palmer House, as well as vanilla, butter brickle, butterscotch ripple, and strawberry ripple. The pleasure for me was enhanced by the aesthetic of an entire block of ice cream that sat before me momentarily with its velvety outer surface heightening my desire, and then by my slice, looking equally seductive, as it inspired me to shape it gently and respectfully with my spoon as I ate it. Oh, the delight!

(c) from date of posting, by Bob Komives, Fort Collins
Building photos from MN Historical Society archives.
Ice-cream packaging photo is generic picture from world wide web,
and likely to have no relationship to St. Paul.

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