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Screaming over ice cream

A tiny Wisconsin town and an upstate New York city are duking it out for bragging rights over the birthplace of the sundae

By Rex W. Huppke
Tribune staff reporter
July 15, 2006

TWO RIVERS, Wis. -- The history of summer's universal treat has gotten a bit sticky, rousing unlikely passions in this humble getaway along the Lake Michigan coast. Politicians are penning ornery fight songs. History buffs and ice-cream shop matrons have stooped to saber rattling, albeit with spoons.

Folks here devoutly believe the first-ever ice-cream sundae was scooped in 1881 by Edward C. Berner, downtown soda fountain owner and, curiously enough, inventor of the glue pen. But tourism gurus in Ithaca, N.Y., recently began an aggressive campaign claiming the sundae was an upstate New York creation, the work of one Chester Platt in 1892.

Delores Carron has been scooping ice cream for fifteen
years at the Washington House in Two Rivers, Wisc.
(Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans)
Jul 14, 2006

"If they think they invented it, fine," said Delores Carron, 86, a dignified yet defiant Two Rivers sundae maker. "But I know we did."

Bruce Stoff of
Ithaca's conventions and visitors bureau countered: "I got a phone call from a guy in Southern California who's a World War II veteran and he said he's ready to re-enlist and come home to fight the good fight against Two Rivers. We don't plan to surrender."

The timing of what will surely become known as the Great Ice-Cream Sundae War of 2006 is impeccable. Sunday is National Ice Cream Day, created in 1984--pre-obesity epidemic--by President Ronald Reagan to recognize the impact frozen dairy has had on the lives of sweet-toothed Americans. Indeed, the International Ice Cream Association says nearly 10 percent of the milk produced by U.S. dairy farmers is used to make ice cream, and the industry pulls in some $20 billion a year.

A sundae from the Washington House in Two Rivers, Wisc.
(Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans) Jul 14, 2006

So it's understandable that Two Rivers and Ithaca each want a piece of the ice-cream pie. This inter-city grappling, however, has brought new meaning to the term "cold war."

The Two Rivers City Council signed a resolution last month condemning Ithaca's "revisionist history" and ordering it to "cease and desist" all promotional activity regarding the sundae. Ithaca's mayor fired back with a taunting proclamation telling the Wisconsinites: "you got nothin', baby."

Two Rivers City Manager Greg Buckley then wrote a pre-emptive "Sundae Fight Song," which includes the tart lyric: "Topped with chocolate, or with cherries/and with lots of nuts./Try to claim our sundae and/we'll kick your butts!"

Sitting like
Switzerland on the border of this conflict is Evanston, which, according to local lore, is also birthplace of the sundae.

In the late 1880s, the devoutly Methodist community--which was definitely the birthplace of prohibition--frowned on serving ice-cream sodas on Sundays, the fizzy water being too titillating. So local parlor owners supposedly replaced soda with syrup and called it a sundae.

But aside from a once-a-year ice-cream sundae social, Evanstonians have all but deserted their dessert.

"We would much prefer to market our fabulous restaurants, our beautiful lakefront and our burgeoning downtown," said Tom Rath, membership and marketing director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce.

Eden Juron Pearlman of the Evanston Historical Society concurred: "We're not interested in duking it out."

Officials in
Two Rivers and Ithaca, on the other hand, are duly engaged.

The tiny Wisconsin town of Two Rivers claims to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae in 1881 and is engaged in a war over the claim with Ithaca, NY.
(Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans) Jul 14, 2006

The Wisconsin faction tells its story thusly:

George Hallauer came into Berner's soda fountain one day in 1881 and asked the owner to drizzle some chocolate sauce on his dish of ice cream. Berner at first refused, saying it would ruin the taste, but Hallauer insisted and the result was delicious.

Berner began serving the treat for a nickel. At first it was available only on Sundays, but it soon became an everyday fixture. A glassware salesman, while placing an order for canoe-shaped ice cream dishes, modified the name to "sundae" and the rest is history.

Unless of course you live in

New York version of the tale has Platt, the soda fountain owner, surprising a local reverend on a Sunday in 1892 with a dish of vanilla ice cream covered in cherry syrup with a candied cherry on top. The priest was enthralled and suggested naming the dessert after the day it was served, thus the "ice cream Sunday." The name was eventually spelled "sundae" to skirt uptight temperance laws.

Ask someone in Two Rivers whom to believe and they'll note that their version of events precedes
Ithaca's by more than a decade. Bolstering that claim is a front-page obituary on Berner in the Chicago Tribune in 1939. The headline: "Man Who Made First Ice Cream Sundae Is Dead."

City Manager Gregory Buckley has helped to amp up the war with Ithaca, NY., over which town is the birthplace of the ice cream sundae.
(Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans)  Jul 14, 2006

Plus, Two Rivers has a sign.

Mounted proudly on the city's tidy downtown square is an official, dark brown
Wisconsin historical marker declaring Two Rivers the birthplace of the sundae. Granted, the sign wasn't erected until 1973. And in 1979, in what can kindly be called a tourism faux pas, the city tore down the historic building that once held Berner's ice cream parlor.

What marks that site now?

"A parking lot," moans Walter Vogl of the Two Rivers Historical Society. "We probably could've done a better job of marketing."

In the early 1990s, the historical society re-created Berner's ice cream shop in the old Washington House hotel, and Two Rivers again embraced its creamy legacy.

But despite the city's sign, an array of historic photos and a rich oral history,
Ithaca has something Two Rivers does not--a document. Well, actually, it's a newspaper ad for Platt's soda fountain from an 1892 edition of the Ithaca Daily Journal. It reads: "Cherry Sunday."

For ice cream experts, that's the trump card.

"The argument over who invented the sundae is a foregone conclusion," said Michael Turback, author of "More Than a Month of Sundaes." "
Ithaca has the documentation; they have the story that makes the most sense."

This seems definitive, at least until Turback admits where he lives: Ithaca.

The people of Two Rivers smell bias.

Enter Shannon Jackson Arnold, Wisconsin-based author of "Everybody Loves Ice Cream" and currently a "churnologist" for Breyers. She agrees
Ithaca has the strongest evidentiary case. But ...

"They have the documentation, but [it's] 11 years after Two Rivers' claim," she said. "That seems like an awfully long time."

Arnold's research revealed nearly a dozen other cities that lay claim to the sundae, including Buffalo, Cleveland, New Orleans, and southwest suburban Plainfield.

"So much of ice cream history is like this. Much of it is based on things that are pretty much nothing more than a myth," she said. "It all sounds very interesting, but in terms of hard historical fact, there just isn't a lot of it."

No matter. The sundae-eaters of Two Rivers have all the facts they need. And any who lay claim to Edward Berner's creation will be met with a mouthful of fight song:

"In Two Rivers, in Wisconsin/History was made./And our pride in that first sundae .../It will never fade."

Hum a few bars of that,

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