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Dairy Queen history curls though area


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This tiny store on Moline's 4th Avenue was the second Dairy Queen ever, serving up the soft-serve treat created by Quad-Citians J.F. and Alex McCullough.

Nearly 60 years ago, in a small ice-cream plant in Green River, 67-year-old J.F. ``Grandpa'' McCullough and his 40-year-old son, Alex, had a brainstorm that turned into a ``Blizzard.''

They set their minds to figuring out a way to serve ice cream in its soft, creamy form -- the form it takes before going into the deep freeze to make it scoopable.

The pair ended up inventing soft-serve ice cream -- an invention that gave birth to Dairy Queen.

That spark of imagination has grown into an international company with more than 5,200 stores worldwide. It started the tradition of soft-serve, walk-up ice-cream windows that host countless Little League baseball teams, shy teenage sweethearts, and families looking for a sweet summer, spring or fall treat. It also launched franchising as it is known today.

Dairy Queen folklore varies, depending on who is asked. But at Dairy Queen's international headquarters in Minneapolis, they're pretty sure they have it down pat in a book aptly titled, ``The Cone with the Curl on Top.''

Grandpa and Alex McCullough had been selling ice cream since they opened the Homemade Ice Cream Co. in Davenport in 1927. In the early 1930s, they decided to move the business to the suburbs. They bought an old cheese factory in Green River and converted it into an ice-cream-mix plant.

Grandpa McCullough knew the mix tasted best before it was frozen into its final form, since lower temperatures numbed the taste buds, robbing the mix of some of its flavor. So he and Alex set out to find out two things: if customers liked the taste of softer ice cream, and if there was a machine that would facilitate serving the creamy mix.

The pair turned to one of their best ice-cream customers, Sherb Noble, who ran a store in Kankakee. He agreed to hold a sale to gauge customer interest in the new product.

On Aug. 4, 1938, the trio launched the ``All the Ice Cream You Can Eat for 10 Cents'' special. They dished up 1,600 servings in two hours.

Another successful test run at Mildred's Ice Cream Shop in Moline, run by C.R. Medd, convinced the McCulloughs their tasty idea was worth pursuing.

The father-and-son team approached two machine companies, one of which dismissed their idea. The other, Stoelting Brothers Co. in Kiel, Wis., expressed mild interest.

In the meantime, Alex McCullough came across a prototype by chance when he noticed a vendor selling frozen custard out of a special freezer on a Chicago street. By the summer of 1939, the McCulloughs had signed an agreement with the freezer's designer, Harry Oltz.

Stoelting Brothers tweaked the design and made it work, though the bulky machine was messy and required constant attention. But the outbreak of World War II put factories to work building munitions, putting construction of the soft-ice-cream machine on hold.

Two of the 17 freezers made before the war went to Sherb Noble, who, in 1940, opened the first store to exclusively dispense the McCulloughs' soft ice cream. The store was nestled between two funeral parlors on North Chicago Street in Joliet. Grandpa McCullough dubbed the store and his product Dairy Queen, because he believed the fresh, wholesome mix was the ``queen'' among dairy products.

A triple-decker cone was a nickel. A sundae sold for 8 cents.

The McCulloughs opened the second store on 4th Avenue in Moline in 1941 and contracted with Jim Elliot to run it. Later that spring, Mr. Noble opened the third store, in Aurora. The fourth opened in Davenport in 1942.

During the next year, Mr. Elliot enlisted the technical expertise of Henry Duke for ideas on how to improve the noisy, messy dispensing machine. At the time, Mr. Duke manufactured commercial laundry equipment. Eventually he abandoned that line of work, and the H.C. Duke Co. of East Moline became the largest producer of machinery used by Dairy Queen International. It still is.

The company grew by leaps and bounds after the war as the McCulloughs haphazardly sold territory rights to entrepreneurs who wanted to open their own Dairy Queen stores. In 1948, several dozen territory operators formed the Dairy Queen National Trade Association, headquartered in Davenport. This and other, similar groups worked to standardize the product and develop advertising.

In 1962, a group of territory operators formed International Dairy Queen Inc., which eventually unified all stores and set standards for the chain's service. Not long after, Alex McCullough's son, Hugh, agreed to sell his stake in Dairy Queen for $1.5 million.

-- By Marcy Norton (January 26, 1998)

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