Ice cream hot spots in the Midwest

LA Times | Travel

WILTON, Iowa -- Anything worth having is, as they say, worth waiting for. The ice cream at the Wilton Candy Kitchen is certainly worth having, because it's as fresh as it gets. Every day, just to the right of the front door, George Nopoulos makes ice cream in the machine he has been using since h...

By Jay Jones // 06.23.09

WILTON, Iowa -- Anything worth having is, as they say, worth waiting for. The ice cream at the Wilton Candy Kitchen is certainly worth having, because it's as fresh as it gets. Every day, just to the right of the front door, George Nopoulos makes ice cream in the machine he has been using since he bought it new. That was in 1951.

These days, Nopoulos, who was slightly built to begin with, has hunched shoulders. He also walks with a shuffle, so you may have to wait a bit, especially if the ice cream parlor is busy. And despite being 89, George still works every day at the parlor, which is open seven days a week and has been in his family since 1910. Joining him behind the counter is wife Thelma, the youngster here, who is 77.

People from across the United States and, indeed, around the world are drawn to Wilton, just a couple of miles off Interstate Highway 80 between Davenport and Iowa City, to visit what's believed to be -- in the Nopouloses' words -- "the oldest ongoing ice cream parlor in the nation." A fellow named R.A. McIntire started making ice cream here in 1860, when Abe Lincoln was running for president.

The Candy Kitchen is also one of the best-kept old-style ice cream parlors in the Midwest. All of them are great places to visit during the summer to enjoy some true Americana and, of course, a cool concoction such as an old-fashioned ice cream soda or even a phosphate.

Never heard of a phosphate? Well, in the days before soda pop, a phosphate was the drink created by mixing flavored syrups with carbonated water. George and Thelma make 20 varieties.

"The Pink Lady -- vanilla, cherry and strawberry -- is always popular," Thelma said. "The Dipsy Doodle combines all the fruit flavors: cherry, strawberry, orange, lemon and lime -- plus vanilla." The kids may want to opt for the drink called The Suicide, a blend of all 20 flavors.

Over the years, George and Thelma have seen their share of celebrities walk through the door and sit either at the marble soda fountain or in one of the walnut booths.

" Gregory Peck had a grilled cheese sandwich with hot mustard, and a chocolate ice cream soda," Thelma recalled with pride. More recently, she said, Brooke Shields stopped by to enjoy a tuna sandwich and, for dessert, a hot fudge sundae.

"This was the hub of the town," George said of the old days. "A lot of business decisions were made here," sometimes over a root beer float and, at other times, over a game of checkers. Local folks still drop in on a regular basis, either just to chat or to sample George's latest batch of ice cream.

"We used to get cream, eggs and milk from the farm. Now we use a mix," George conceded. It doesn't matter, really; the ice cream is still the freshest to be found for miles. The Nopouloses still use ingredients such as homemade chocolate and homegrown raspberries and strawberries in their creamy concoctions. In the summertime, beautiful roses from Thelma's garden are a fixture on the counter.

George's old ice cream machine makes just 2 ½ gallons at a time. That suits him -- and his customers -- just fine. Still, it creates a sharp contrast to what's happening 350 miles away in another Iowa town.

By proclamation of the Iowa Legislature, Le Mars is officially the "Ice Cream Capital of the World." It's more than just a boast, according to the company, which asserts that more ice cream is made here by Wells' Dairy, using the Blue Bunny brand, than in any other town on Earth. It provides ice cream to 20 countries. The Bunny has even reproduced, with a plant now in Utah.

Driving into town from Sioux City, half an hour away, visitors are greeted by a 12-story structure that seems a bit out of place on the prairie, especially because it's not a grain elevator. The tower is one humongous freezer in which a whopping 135 million pounds of ice cream is stored.

Wells' Dairy has been making frozen treats since shortly after Fred Wells founded the company in 1913. Production nowadays totals 120 million gallons a year.

With a population of just 9,400, Le Mars certainly has a small-town feel, despite its big-time business. Blue Bunny's ice cream parlor, right on Business U.S. Highway 75, the main drag through town, fits right in. Even though it's just 9 years old, it's designed to look like a soda fountain from the 1920s.

Bunny Tracks, vanilla ice cream with chocolate-covered peanuts, peanut butter-filled chocolate bunnies and ribbons of fudge and peanut butter caramel, is the parlor's consistent best seller, according to manager Gary Susemihl. A yummy flavor called White Chocolate Caramel Cluster ranks second. But despite its many creative flavors, Blue Bunny still relies on the three traditional favorites of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry for 60 percent of its sales.

The ice cream parlor is part of Blue Bunny's visitor center, which also features a museum chock-full of antiquities that share the company's nearly 100-year history. Group tours often are led by Andrew Wells, a great-grandson of the dairy's founder.

While Le Mars, Iowa, tightly holds on to the "Ice Cream Capital" crown, the good people of neighboring Wisconsin have plenty to crow about when it comes to great homemade ice cream and fun places to enjoy it.

As you would expect, ice cream parlors are pretty popular in the state many folks know as "America's Dairyland." For example, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has been producing great ice cream for more than 90 years. It's available right where it's made, at Babcock Hall, and at the Memorial Union, just off State Street.

Visitors to the beautiful rolling hills of west-central Wisconsin, home to the canoe-friendly Kickapoo River, should definitely make time to stop at Sibby's Organic Zone Ice Cream Parlor in Viroqua. Owner Sue Sebion has two noble missions: saving family farms from extinction and, as she puts it, "restoring faith in food."

Seriously now, did anyone, at any time, really lose faith in one of our favorite comfort foods? To quote from the lyrics of a 1928 song:

"I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! Rah, rah, rah!"

Writer Jay Jones has been a huge fan of ice cream since, as a boy in Aurora, he won first place in a contest sponsored by his local YMCA. He redeemed his prize -- all the ice cream he could eat -- at Oberweis Dairy.

Wilton Candy Kitchen, 310 Cedar St., Wilton, Iowa, 563-732-2278

Wells' Dairy Visitor Center, U.S. Highway 75 and Iowa Highway 3, Le Mars, Iowa. 712- 546-4090,

Babcock Hall Dairy Store, 1605 Linden Drive, Madison, Wis., 608-262-3045,

Sibby's Organic Zone Ice Cream Parlor, 215 S. Main St., Viroqua, Wis., 608-637-3202,