Aug. 19. Church member Pat Ginsbach invited The Journal to see how the famous ice cream is made. On a sultry July day last week, a group of parishioners gathered in a small building next to the …
Church member Pat Ginsbach invited The Journal to see how the famous ice cream is made. On a sultry July day last week, a group of parishioners gathered in a small building next to the church. Tables were lined with cartons of whipping cream, bags of sugar and frothy milk, while Sue Thompson whipped 30 pounds of egg whites into a frenzy. Once complete, 30 pounds of egg yolks were beaten the same way.
Thompson said adding milk to the egg yolks makes them creamier. It’s also important to beat the whites almost into a meringue. This helps the ice cream’s texture later. She can’t remember a time when she didn’t help make ice cream. She looks forward to “licking the paddles” and tasting the final product.
“I grew up in this church, so this has always been a part of my life,” she smiled.
Thompson’s grandfather was Ginsbach’s uncle and he wrote about the ice cream socials in his personal diaries, Ginsbach said.
“When I was growing up, they’d go get the ice they cut from Lake Pepin in Bay City,” she said. “How do you think they kept it from melting? They covered it in sawdust.”
The ice, though bought in bags now, used to have to be crushed by volunteers.
According to an article in a 2020 Pierce County Historical Association newsletter, written by Julie Huebel, the socials used to be held at the Good Templars Hall just south of the church.
“There is written record of it being held 126 years ago, but it is believed the community event was going on before that time,” Huebel wrote.
As Dan Flory and Fred Koehler poured ingredients into the pasteurizer, they advised that adding a bit of salt to the custard mixture is key; much like road salt, it lowers the freezing temperature of the water so it won’t freeze as easily while mixing.
Helpers Roberta Holcomb (who is in her 90s) and Joyce Kendall aren’t sure where the original ice cream recipe came from. It’s been used as long as anyone can remember. According to Huebel’s article, parishioners used to go doorto- door asking for milk and egg donations. It’s easier to use store-bought supplies now, and they purchase frozen egg yolks and whites already separated, so they don’t have to crack and separate 35-50 dozen eggs.
Once all ingredients are loaded into the pasteurizer, the custard is cooked for about one day, or until it reaches 150 degrees. Then it’s transferred into a bulk tank by pump to cool overnight.
“Years ago, we did that with pails,” Flory said.
Maintaining a tradition
In the church basement kitchen, Peggy Koehler and Kendall chopped cherries and walnuts for the famous cherry nut ice cream. Kendall is in charge of the flavorings, which were handed down to her from Charlotte Bowen. She worried that the flavoring ratios would be lost, so she took matters into her own hands one day.
“I followed her around and wrote it all down,” Kendall said as she held up a small, spiral- bound notebook. “Over the years, it’s just kept going and going. I remember waiting on tables when I was in seventh or eighth grade.”
In Huebel’s article, Holcomb shared her memories of the socials. She said it didn’t matter the denomination; families would donate a dish of milk and a dozen eggs. She hauled donated milk in the trunk of a car.
While this year the social is drive-thru, due to the ongoing pandemic, in past years people have been able to enjoy pie, ice cream, hot beef sandwiches and cake at the church. In the earlier days, soda crackers were served with the ice cream. Buses brought hungry visitors from Stillwater and the Twin Cities; nowadays, they serve about 200-300 people per social.
Time for ice cream
On Day 2, the crew, which grew to include Paul Churchill and son Tyler, plus many others, got going around 7 a.m. The small building hummed with the whirring of engines powered by pulleys and belts, which in turn, ran the paddles that mixed the custard and flavorings in 10- gallon cylinders. Five were going at a time. While many things have changed over the years, it was like stepping back in time to see the operation running.
The cylinders were half-filled with custard by a hose leading from the bulk tank, where the custard cooled overnight. The cylinders sat in barrels, surrounded by crushed ice and salt, which men kept mixing and jabbing with sticks so it didn’t freeze solid. Before the pulleys and belts were hooked up to turn the paddles, Kendall carefully measured her flavorings into the cans. As the engines hummed to life, the organized chaos was a work of art in itself. Everyone had a job and knew his or her place, whether it was crushing ice and salt, removing the paddles from the cans once they mixed for 20-30 minutes, measuring flavorings, scraping paddles, keeping the belts on the pulleys, removing the cans from the barrels and replacing them with fresh ones, or everyone’s favorite, tasting for quality control.
Tyler Churchill posted a video of the operation on Facebook in June; it garnered over 200,000 views. He’s happy to help keep the tradition going, though he joked that the older men are smarter than he is.
“We’re the next in line,” Tyler Churchill said of himself and his dad. “We’re the two youngest people here. I have the best job. I get to come out and eat ice cream.”
Paul Churchill stood sentry, making sure the equipment his grandfather used keeps working. While gas motors were used before, electric are now used. He and others were ready if a belt slipped. The paddles must keep turning, or the custard will freeze solid before it becomes ice cream.
“They better be loaded (the canisters) just right or they’ll tell me to adjust them,” Kathy Miller said.
The group makes about 70 gallons of ice cream, sold for $5 a quart or $3 a pint. Flory said cars lined up into the road at the June social, waiting their turn to buy pie and ice cream concession- style from the shed.
“It’s crazier when it’s sit-down,” Tyler Churchill said. “I thought with the age of everyone, after COVID, it would die out. Plum City’s did.”
As the paddles turned, Kendall waited patiently to scrape paddles or add flavorings. The men bantered comfortably. When a belt slipped, Fred Koehler was proclaimed the expert to fix it. When a motor kicked off breakers, they gathered round to figure it out. They were soon down an ice cream maker as one motor refused to run. The men scrambled, because leaving the belt and pulley system shut down too long would cause the ice to freeze and the paddles to stall.
“Maybe we need a new belt,” one man said. “But you can’t find them anymore. Have to drive all the way to Red Wing.”
“You make it sound like it’s horse and buggy days,” Paul Churchill teased.
When the cherry nut paddle came out, before it was washed, everyone grabbed a spoon and gathered round the table outside to taste their hard work.
“When I was a kid, a dozen young children were lined up out here to get ice cream,” Paul Churchill said.
While the gears kept turning, in the kitchen adjacent to the operation, an assembly line of worker bees methodically scraped the canisters for every last drop of ice cream, portioning them into quart and pint containers. The stacks in the freezers grew, waiting to be paired with homemade pies later on.
Last year this group didn’t get to make ice cream. The church’s administrative board made the gut-wrenching decision to cancel the ice cream socials in 2020. While the socials this year are drive-thru, everyone is just happy to be back.
“You better get here pretty early,” Tyler Churchill warned. “Fifteen minutes after we start sometimes, the cherry nut or chocolate is gone.”
The next and last 2021 social will be held 47 p.m. Aug. 19 at Rock Elm United Methodist Church (N5591 170th St., Elmwood). Proceeds raised are donated to various charities, including local food pantries, women’s shelters and church missions.