Soda Fountain Keeps Tradition Alive

Americana, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on June 8, 2008
Wilton Candy Kitchen opened in 1910.

Cherry phosphates, brown cows, dipsy doodles and other soda fountain treats are sipped and savored at Wilton Candy Kitchen, an ice cream parlor in Wilton, Iowa (pop. 2,829), that's nearly 100 years old and still full of fizz.

"We serve happiness," says owner and soda jerk George Nopoulos, 88. "That's our duty."

At 7:30 a.m., seven days a week, George and his wife, Thelma, 76, open the shop for business. They plug in the neon "soda" and "lunch" signs in the front windows, unfurl the red-and-white striped awning and sweep the sidewalk in front of the shop.

The tidy Wilton Candy Kitchen hasn't changed much in appearance since George's father held a grand opening in June 1910. The 1856 building has been home to a confectionery, ice cream parlor and soda fountain since 1860. Wilton Candy Kitchen, which made chocolates until the 1940s, may be the oldest operating ice cream parlor and soda fountain in America. Even the menu is stuck in the past.

Sparkle and fizz
"A chocolate ice cream soda, please," says Vera Pagel, 85, who has relished visits to Wilton Candy Kitchen since the 1920s when her family would drive from the farm into town on Saturday nights to sell eggs. "A lot of times we'd have a nickel or a dime and we'd have to decide if we wanted candy or ice cream."

Thelma squirts chocolate syrup into a tall fluted glass, then adds a shot of carbonated water and two hefty scoops of George's homemade vanilla ice cream. She tops the frothy soda with whipped cream and a cherry. "You want it to sparkle and fizz," she says.

Pagel's face brightens as she sips from the straw. "It's just wonderful," she says. "I think life was sweeter and more innocent in our soda days."

She and her friend, Pauline Maurer, 83, visit and chat in one of the parlor's original walnut booths, while 8-year-olds Arianna Froehlich and Maddy Hoefer giggle and wiggle on stools at the marble soda fountain while waiting for their ice cream cones.

Every few minutes, the screen door opens and another customer walks in. Newcomers are easy to spot as they marvel at the surroundings: marble-trimmed booths with leaded-glass lampshades, the pressed-tin ceiling, an antique phonograph "George's first job at age 6 was to wind the 1920s Victrola "and Thelma's hand-lettered menus, featuring grilled sandwiches and 20 ice cream flavors.

Fountain favorites
At the soda fountain, with its syrup dispensers, containers of sauces and toppings, and gleaming gooseneck spigots that dispense carbonated or plain water, the Nopouloses stir up old-fashioned drinks "and memories.

Among the most popular "and colorfully named "drinks are the phosphates, homemade soda pops made with flavored syrup, carbonated water and ice. The Green River is made with lemon and lime syrup, the Red River with strawberry and cherry, a dipsy doodle with five fruit flavors, and a Hadacol (named after an old medicinal tonic) with vanilla and root beer. "They hadda call it something," George quips.

Other soda fountain favorites include brown cows "made with root beer, chocolate syrup and vanilla ice cream "milkshakes, malts, ice cream sundaes and banana splits. Thelma decorates the sundaes and splits with miniature American and Greek flags to honor their national and ethnic heritage.

Three or four times a week, George mixes up batches of rich ice cream using 12-percent butterfat milk. After 15 minutes of churning and freezing in a 1951 ice cream freezer, ice cream flows from the spout and George tastes a sample. "Quality control," he says, smacking his lips.