Sweeten to Taste: Ice Cream in Bozeman History

Rachel Phillips  |   Monday Jul. 1st, 2024

As a kid, one of my favorite summertime activities was helping my parents make homemade ice cream on the Fourth of July. We had a bright blue slatted wooden bucket with a hand crank and interior metal canister with wooden paddles. After filling the canister with a custard-like concoction made from heavy cream, eggs, sugar, and vanilla, we packed ice cubes and special ice cream salt all around the canister. Then came the fun part. We sat on a stool in front of the ice cream maker in our driveway and cranked, and cranked, and cranked that handle – turning the canister around and around in the ice. As the ice slowly melted, we added more to the top, making sure the bucket was filled and the canister surrounded. My siblings and I took turns cranking to give our arms a rest, but the process always took an eternity. Eventually, our parents gave us the happy news that the ice cream was ready. I remember opening that frosty metal canister and scraping the ice cream into bowls, which we would quickly consume in the July heat.

Ice cream has a fun history in Gallatin County. Delicious homemade ice cream was a convenient summertime treat on local farms, which had easy access to plenty of fresh cream. In the Gallatin History Museum’s photograph collection, there are a handful of snapshots taken at the Gee family farm at Reese Creek (north of Belgrade), in the 1910s. Nan, Bessie, Edith and Stuart Gee and friends are pictured churning and enjoying their homemade treat.

Like butter churns, hand-cranked ice cream makers were common, and locals tried a wide variety of homemade recipes and flavor additions. Bozeman resident Emma Weeks Willson included several ice cream recipes in her 1916 handwritten cookbook. Emma Weeks married Civil War veteran Lester Willson and arrived in Bozeman in 1869 as a new bride. She spent the rest of her life in town, helped establish First Presbyterian Church, and was admired for her impressive musical talents. In her cookbook, now digitized and available online through the Montana History Portal, Emma included a simple recipe for Prune Ice Cream. “1 pt. prunes with 2 slices lemon, & 1 stick cinnamon. Sweeten to taste. Mash through a sieve. Mix with 1 qt. cream and freeze.” If, by chance, one preferred another flavor to prunes, Emma’s recipe for Maple Ice Cream might hit the spot. “1 pt. whipped cream, 1 heaping spoon gelatine dissolved in small quantity water. 1 qt. milk, 1 ½ teacups maple sugar, shave fine. Pinch salt. Put ingredients together and freeze. This makes enough for 3 qts. The maple sugar does not have to be melted but shaved fine.”

Making and storing ice cream was hard work before the introduction of electric freezers and refrigerators. Local homes used ice boxes and depended on regular deliveries from the ice man to keep food cold. B. Frank Bonn was a local ice man who operated a pond and ice houses located along South Church Avenue. Large blocks of ice were harvested from the pond in the wintertime and stored long-term in ice houses, packed in sawdust. In the summertime, Bonn delivered blocks of ice to homes and businesses around town, where they were loaded into kitchen ice boxes (like modern-day food coolers).

Lehrkind’s Super Creamed Ice Cream Factory at night

Maggie Caven Heisick and Naomi Pace Johnson grew up in Bozeman in the 1930s and recalled that B. Frank Bonn, the ice man, not only supplied blocks of ice but smaller shavings, which were essential for crafting summertime treats. In a 2003 oral history interview, Heisick and Johnson recalled, “...and when he [Bonn] came through the neighborhood, we kids would grab the dish pans and chase after the ice truck and the amount of ice we got would depend on if our mothers made lemonade, sherbet, or ice cream. And looking back on it, Mr. Bonn was awfully nice to the kids...and I sometimes later thought maybe he deliberately made some extra ice chips for us, because it was fun. You would hold your dishpan there and he would scrap some from the ice truck into the pan. I’m sure we ate some going home but we hoarded the ice so that mother would make something good for us.”

If one preferred to avoid the effort of making homemade ice cream, several popular mid-twentieth century Bozeman cafes and soda fountains served cold treats. One of several Main Street drug stores with a soda fountain was Roecher Drug. Roecher’s was located at 118 E. Main Street and operated from about 1897 until 1977. Bozeman resident Wiley Davis was a self-described “soda squirt” at Roecher’s for several years in the early 1900s and related some of his on-the-job experiences in a 1975 oral history interview. “If there was a milk shake, we had to shake it [by hand]. We didn’t have a machine to shake it for us; we made our own ice cream, and we had a little place out back and that’s where we made our ice cream.”

Lehrkind’s Super Creamed Ice Cream Factory

Today, most locals associate the name Lehrkind with brewing beer and bottling soft drinks. Julius Lehrkind moved his family to Bozeman in the 1890s and purchased the small existing local brewery, the Spieth and Krug, and transformed it into a massive operation headquartered on North Wallace Avenue. When Prohibition laws were enacted in Montana in 1918, the Lehrkind family adapted and branched out into other areas, including soft drinks, ice, and ice cream. Julius Lehrkind’s son Herman operated Lehrkind’s Super Creamed Ice Cream Factory at 25 South Tracy Avenue from about 1940 to 1972. Flavor options posted behind the counter in a 1940s interior image of the shop include: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, chocolate chip, lemon custard, marble fudge, butter brickle, caramel nut, red ‘n white, cherry, pumpkin, lime sherbet, pineapple sherbet and lemon sherbet.

The Bungalow Drug soda fountain, located at 14 West Main Street, was popular with several generations between 1910 and 1994. Like many drug store lunch counters, the Bungalow served ice cream sodas, shakes, and floats in a variety of flavors. A 1948 Bungalow Drug menu advertised sodas and floats for twenty cents, while sundaes and shakes cost twenty-five. The Bungalow also had a selection of “fancy sundaes” on the menu. The “Mystery Mix” for seventy-five cents included “Four kinds of Ice Cream, Marshmallow, Caramel, Pineapple and Strawberry Sauce.” The thirty-cent “MSC Special” (Montana State College Special), was made of “Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate, Marshmallow and Nuts.” In Heisick and Johnson’s 2003 oral history interview, Maggie Caven Heisick remembers wonderful summer days that included both ice cream and swimming at Bogert Pool. “When we went swimming, we could get a big ice cream cone at the Bungalow for a nickel. We would buy the ice cream cone and walk from the Bungalow up to the swimming pool in Bogert Grove and we could make the ice cream cone last until we got there.”​

Woolworth’s was another popular soda fountain and ice cream parlor. One Woolworth’s employee who worked the lunch counter in the 1970s remembers serving hundreds of banana splits and chocolate and strawberry ice cream sodas during the sunny summer months. The recipe for Woolworth’s ice cream sodas was simple – scoops of vanilla ice cream and plenty of carbonated water were added to a base of flavored syrup and heavy milk. The soda was always topped with a generous helping of whipped cream and served with an extra-long spoon and a straw.
A memorable Bozeman ice cream joint was Watson Brothers Drive-in. Watson’s was located on the northeast corner of South Eighth and West Babcock Street, where the Haufbrau is today. Halworth, Lyle and Robert Watson grew up in Idaho. The brothers arrived in Bozeman in the mid-1940s and by 1947, had purchased an ice cream shop called The Ice Cream Dipper at 36 South Willson Avenue. Within a few years, the Watsons soon expanded their enterprise to include the Watson Brothers Drive-In restaurant. Watson’s Drive-In on Eighth and Babcock served burgers, Spudnuts (donuts made with potato flour), and of course, ice cream. The Watson brothers sold the Ice Cream Dipper in the early 1950s but continued to operate the Drive-In until 1958.

In later years, other favorite ice cream establishments included A&W (established in the early 1950s at 11th and College), the Arctic Circle (1967-1974 at 702 W. Main St.), and Dairy Queen (opened in 1975 on North 7th Ave.). There are some great ice cream shops in Bozeman today that rival the soda fountains of a century ago. Whether you make your own sweet treat at home or frequent one of the local cafes, bring on the nostalgia of Bozeman’s past this July and enjoy an ice cream soda, cone or sundae. 

About the Author(s)