Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When a child with Ice Cream ruled the day

The building stood vacant on Division Street for the longest time, sealed tight in its red brick frame and dwarfed by the 21st-century skyline of million-dollar condominiums nearby.  A silver bowl that once caught the cigarettes of all who entered clung to a wall near the entry door - a reminder of the layers of lives that passed through. Now the building no longer stands.

Kathy LeRoux was 7 years old when she moved to the city's West Side, across the street from the building. It was 1951, and she said she can remember skipping into the place with a dime and strolling out with a chocolate ice cream cone. She would then find a patch of grass out front, where she would be joined by other children from the community who were doing the same thing. It was a neighborhood routine that would last until she became an adult and left for secretarial school in Albany.

April 29 would mark the anniversary of the day Ralph and Floyd Ellsworth sold their first order of ice cream at the Division Street plant that bore their family's name.

A few years ago, the entire operation suddenly closed up one day, and its employees, who had numbered 125 five years earlier, were laid off. Company CEO and third-generation owner Gerald Ellsworth initially expressed hope of re-opening in a matter of weeks, but his hopefulness was soon followed by attorneys talking about possible foreclosure.

The Ellsworth Ice Cream Company grew from humble beginnings in 1933 to branding its own ice cream and transporting the flavors on delivery trucks to dozens of grocery stores and pharmacies across the region.
A small retail store was part of the factory. Michael Wilcox worked his way through high school during the early 1960s by muscling scoops of ice cream into cones on the retail end, as well as handling endless molds of frozen pops that would come tumbling down conveyer belts in the factory.

"In the back we had a crew of seven or eight guys, and we could do 16,000 to 18,000 dozen popsicles in an eight-hour shift," said Wilcox, a touch of marvel in his voice. "The retail part - it was kind of an inconvenient convenience store for the neighborhood. It was good if you wanted eggs, ice cream and milk. If you wanted other items, it was not so good," he laughed.

Wilcox is in his 60s today, and on Thursday afternoon, after disposing of the past, he thought about what the ice cream plant meant to the city in the present. "You know, they ran that business for a long, long time," he said. "It was very sad when it closed."

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