Cool tastes of summer
Rural Pennsylvania ice cream stand has faithful following from both sides of the state line.
By CARL E. FEATHER
Star Beacon Lifestyle Editor
During the past 44 years, Jack White has seen a lot of owners come and go at the Cherry Hill Drive-In in Conneaut Township, Pa. He recalls a time when a house and garage occupied this southeast corner of Route 6N and Cherry Hill Road. The house burned down and Lloyd Hollister, who lived across the road on 6N, bought the property. "He was working in Erie for a construction company and got hold of a construction building," White says. "He hauled it
in here, set it up, put an awning on it and opened an ice cream stand."
White says the stand had a string of owners after Hollister gave it a start. For several years, the business sat empty and became overgrown with weeds and small trees. Then a new owner came along, cleaned up the place and re-established a customer base. When that owner died, the drive-in was inherited by an out-of- town man who had no concept of what this drive-in was all about.
"He thought it was a drive-in movie," says White, who lives to the north of the ice cream stand. The man's daughter ran the stand for a short time, then it went back on the market. White credits Dick and Ann Moore for really turning the place around and building a faithful following. "They were faithful
about opening up at the same time and they really took an interest in the place," he says.
Ditto for subsequent owners, Mary Kay White and Fred Ralph, who had it for several years before selling to the drive-in's current owners, Kurt and Lauri Geer. The Geers purchased the stand in June 2002 after living next to it for several years. Kurt, who's as old as the business he owns, says they moved to the rural community five years ago after he
was transferred from his job in Cleveland to one in Erie. A "jack of all trades and master of none," Kurt says one of his numerous careers involved evaluating businesses for profitability. Based upon his work, Kurt was convinced that this little drive-in, situated halfway between West Springfield and Albion, Pa., was a winner. He told Mary Kay White that if she ever wanted to sell, let him know.
Geer says the stand is a landmark that requires no advertising, despite several competitors springing up around him. "People who came here as kids are now bringing their kids," he says. Many of the customers are seniors who have been making the trip to Cherry
Hill for ice cream since the store opened in 1959.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Joe and Arlene Manning took a break from a day filled with chores around the house and drove the five miles from their Beaver Center, Pa., home for a treat. "We like the atmosphere and the country-like setting, said Joe as
he stirred the hot fudge syrup into the mound of ice cream in his dish. "It's nice and close and they give you a lot, too." The Mannings usually order the same thing every time they visit. Arlene likes the banana splits; Joe and son Phillip like the hot fudge sundaes.
Other patrons drive much farther for the atmosphere and treats offered here. "I'd say about 50 percent of our business comes out of Ohio," Kurt says. "If you come here at a time when we're really busy, you'll see that 4 out of 10 to 6 out of 10 of the cars will have Ohio plates."
Art and Deana Follett of Sheffield Township make the 20-minute trip at least twice a week. "We come over all the time, we like it here," Deana says. "It's nice, quiet," Art adds. "It's got good food, good ice cream."
Like his predecessors, Kurt still serves up as many varieties of Hershey's hard ice cream as his freezers will hold (27 flavors as of Wednesday). The line-up includes traditional favorites as well exotics like Muddy Sneakers and White House Cherry, plus sugar-
free, sherbet and fruit yogurts. For those who prefer a vanilla, chocolate or twist cone, the stand serves frozen custard rather than a reduced-fat product.
"It's the good stuff, not the fat-free," he says. "It's pure custard and there is definitely a difference in taste as far as the creaminess goes." The little drive-in's menu takes up a full sheet of paper. The
fare includes standards like cheeseburgers with the works and chili dogs, as well as Philly steak sandwiches, pizza logs, freedom fries, barbecued pork sandwich and Italian sausage.
On the treats side are standards like cones, sundaes and milkshakes, as well as a frozen banana, sundae in a waffle cone, Smoothies and ice cream pies. One of the pie varieties features a pint each of White House and black cherry ice cream in a pie crust topped with whipped cream and cherries. But you don't have to order a pie to feel special here. The
little touches are evident even in the sugar and waffle, which have a little surprise in the tip (you'll have to order one to find out what that is). Bring your dog along, and get an ice cream cup topped with a Milk Bone biscuit. There's no indoor dining, but the Geers have several picnic tables with umbrellas around the stand, and for those who want to get away from the crowd, there's a table in a grassy area accessed by a bridge.
The stand is located in the heart of Conneaut Township's Amish community, and it's not unusual to see a horse and buggy trot by while you're enjoying a snack or meal. A short distance down West Cherry Hill Road, Lovina Miller sells homemade cherry, apple and blueberry pies; breads; cinnamon rolls and doughnuts on Saturdays. The little Amish business also sells produce in season.
Geer opens the stand every day at 11 a.m. and remains open until 10 p.m. He says there are times an hour can pass without a single customer, then the place will get real busy. Sunday afternoons are the busiest times, as are the dinner hours and shortly
thereafter. Kurt says the stand's most popular hard ice cream flavors are peanut butter cup, butter pecan and black cherry. Are there flavors that he tried and didn't click with customers?
"Coffee fudge almond yogurt and pistachio nut," says Kurt. Kurt, whose other job is caring for foster children, opens the stand in April and keeps the 7-day-a-week schedule through September. If weather permits in October, he's open Friday, Saturday and Sunday before closing down for the winter. The stand provides summer employment for about a half-dozen local youngsters who get their first taste of working by dipping ice cream, washing windows and floors, and making small talk with
customers. Ashley Hosler, 17, is in her first year at the stand, and she says talking to customers is her favorite part of the job.
"For a lot of these kids, it's there first job," Kurt says. "In this business, they can have fun at work and make some money. They can go into the real world later."
Although he is evaluating the possibility of offering indoor seating or year-around operation, for now, the Geers and their customers are content with the operation as it is: a classic ice cream stand where the clerk has to stick her head out the little window in order to hear the customer give his order above the drone of traffic, where menus are posted on the windows, the spoons are plastic and summer's sweet coolest pleasures are delivered one lick at a time.
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