In upstate New York, a sure sign of summer is when the numerous roadside ice cream stands around the area start to open their doors. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that winter is over (It really never is in New York), but just that summer is coming, eventually. But these stands aren’t just a sign of summer, they are a symbol of how farmers are able to adapt and persevere through tough times.
The reason that ice cream stands have become such a tradition in New York is because upstate New York was once the dairy capital of America. During the 19th century, New York produced the most milk, cheese and butter than any other state. New York was also the first state to have a cheese-making factory, with the first one opening in Rome, NY in 1851. When New York began requiring milk to be pasteurized in 1935, Dake’s Dairy Products, (which would eventually become Stewart’s Shops, a staple of upstate New York living and producer of fine ice creams), started one of the country’s first pasteurizing plants and helped farmers from all over the region get their milk up to the new standards. Currently, New York is still a leader in milk production (We’re the 4th largest producer overall) and yogurt production (dubbed the “Yogurt Capital of the Nation” in 2014).
There’s a big gap between the time of New York’s dairy heyday and today. What filled that gap and kept farmers afloat were roadside stands. Roadside ice cream stands in particular started popping up during the Great Depression. Farming has never been the most lucrative of careers (Trust us, we know), and it especially took a hit during the early 20th century. Farmers desperately needed to come up with ways to make ends meet. With less money in the market, less people were buying groceries and that lead to a surplus in milk, produce and other farm products.
But when the going got tough, the women got going (Isn’t that how it always works? Women show up and get. things. done.) The wives of the local dairy farmers put their knowledge to the test by creating value-added items for the farm. Women were using produce to make pickles, jams, pies and more to stock pop-up farm stands. And more importantly, ice cream. Ice cream, easy to make and even easier to sell, was the real money maker for these emerging business owners.
Ice cream, like our upstate farmers, have gone through a lot of ups and downs. Ice cream was once a simple dish created first in the Second Century B.C. (They used a snow cream recipe that is similar to the one we like to make after a fresh snowfall). Italy refined the techniques of using milk and flavorings to create a creamy dessert. Soon enough, ice cream recipes were spread (and became much more gourmet) through France and finally settled in America in 1744.
When ice cream came to America, it stopped being a simple treat created by what you could find on the farm. It was exotic and rare, which meant that it could be priced at a premium. Ice cream was reserved for presidents, nobility and whomever else had the money and the power to attain the icy confection (Today, we like to enjoy ice cream on the couch after a long day in the garden).
So how did ice cream become a dish for the people? It’s all thanks to a milk seller named C. Jacob Fussell. In 1851, Fussell had a steady business helping farmers sell their milk and cream to consumers and businesses across the state. But Fussell saw problems on the horizon. Even though the 1850s marked a great time for dairy producers, the market was (and still is) finnicky. His clients were looking for a way to use their excess milk beyond bottling it or making it into butter and cheese. Fussell talked his clients into working with him to produce ice cream on a large scale. Ice cream was chic to eat, thanks to its many years of being a status symbol for the rich, and no one was manufacturing it wholesale. It was a two birds, one stone solution. (Or should we say two birds, one cone? *ba dum tss* Thanks, we’ll be here all week. Feel free to tip us in soft serve.)
By the time the Great Depression came around, dairy farmers once again turned to ice cream to turn a profit. The farmers’ wives were able to make enough money off their ice cream and pies to keep their farms afloat.
The economy eventually strengthened and so did the roadside stand business. Now farmers’ wives weren’t just using their stands to keep their farms going. They were becoming full-fledged businesses. Also, refrigeration both on a small and large scale was becoming more available and stand owners could now make more ice cream and store it for later.
Ice cream stands really reached their peak in the 1950s and 60s. Car use was on the rise and roadside ice cream and farm stands were perfect places to grab a bite on a long drive. Dairy farmers turned their roadside stands from little sheds into businesses with whimsical architecture and bright neon signs. The menus expanded past ice cream, jams and pie. Farm stands were soon becoming full-fledged restaurants.
Ice cream stands are now an indelible part of New York state’s history. Dairyland, in Sharon Springs, is one of the most vibrant reminders of these summer icons. It’s still packed every night from May to October, and is run by a great young, local, entrepreneur, Cyle, who makes sure all the food is homemade and the soft serve cones are extra, extra tall.
Many of you remember that we launched our Goat Poop chocolate candies last holiday. We didn’t plan on making any more until next holiday but decided to make one secret batch for Dairyland this summer. If customers used our secret code “Gimme some goat poop on that!”, Cyle would sprinkle on a free topping of Beekman Goat Poop. We loved being part of the summer ice cream tradition, even if it was for a limited time.
So whether you’re getting your ice cream hard or soft, in a cone, a dish, or in a cone then in a dish (Brent needs the drip protection), with lots of toppings (Josh loves vanilla soft serve drizzled with our Cajeta) or with blue goo (If you see this on the menu, order it. Trust us.) make sure that when you visit the mercantile during the summer, you plan a stop at one of these New York legends. We’ve included some of our favorite area ice cream stands below, let us know if you go!
A little farther down the road: