The Age of Isaly’s

For anyone fortunate enough to have lived during the age of Skyscraper Cones, just hearing the name Isaly’s evokes a very special corner of the memory bank — where laughter and well-being are kept safe.

When you ask people about their memories of Isaly’s, the first thing they do is smile.

The name and the place signified Good Times — everybody went there to have fun. Even the employees were in on it. How else could you explain the phenomenon on Saturday night when, faced with a crush of customers lining up all around the room, it was common for off-duty Isaly’s employees to step back behind the counter out of uniform and pitch in scooping ice cream?

That’s someone who loves their job … and someone who loves the atmosphere so much they are in a booth even during their time off.

Isaly’s was a state of mind: you went there to relax and laugh with your friends; and it was a promise to any kid that life had treats in store.

For me it was a Cherry Coke. Before I set foot in an Isaly’s I had never even heard of such a thing, hadn’t even imagined it. When someone in our booth mentioned it casually, my ears perked up as if in instant recognition of a secret key to my life that had been hitherto unsuspected.

I said, “They make cherry Coke?” And my pal, who was an old worldly Isaly’s veteran, said, “Of course they do. They can do anything. They’re magic.”

I thought he was joking then, but as I look back on it now I realize he was right. There was something very differently magic about Isaly’s. Otherwise they couldn’t have launched an empire of ice cream so improbably from such a tiny little Mansfield milk route.

The Mansfield Pure Milk Co.

The very notion that someone would regularly deliver milk to your doorstep is, by today’s standards, almost like a dream. It was such a different world back then.

In the beginning — that was 1899 — this delivery process was essential because families kept their milk cold in an ice box, and that big ice cube had a very limited shelf life. Getting your milk in quart bottles, delivered every few days to your door by the Milkman — whose horse waited patiently in the street — was an ordinary part of life in Mansfield.

William Isaly established himself in the community by 1902 with 26 milk routes that covered Mansfield and the Ohio State Reformatory.

Even 60 years later, when there wasn’t a house in town that didn’t have an electric refrigerator as standard equipment, the Milkman was still keeping his rounds and leaving bottles in the milk box by the door. You can still find homes in Mansfield constructed during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s that have insulated milk boxes built-in, like a secret portal from Isaly’s to the kitchen.

The Isaly’s Ice Cream Cone

The plant where Mr. Isaly processed his dairy products was on North Franklin Street — just off of Park Avenue — in a city lot space that is today occupied by courtrooms of the Mansfield Municipal Building. That was the site where the social revolution began that changed Ice Cream Socials forever. In 1912 the Mansfield Pure Milk Co. began making ice cream.

The day they started selling cones on Franklin Street a crowd gathered so quickly and boisterously that a passerby thought it looked like a crime scene. He asked a police officer if somebody had been shot. “Yes,” the cop replied, “Isaly’s shooting them with ice cream.”

From the very first they distinguished themselves by piling a small mountain on top of the cone that stood 4 inches high, weighed 4 ounces and sold for 5 cents. The word didn’t exactly exist in common usage yet in 1912, but a decade later these treats became known as Skyscraper Cones. In the summer of 1912 Isaly’s sold 7,600 of them, so there was really no looking back after that.

The Skyscraper Cone was an art form all in itself, as any counter person could tell you. It was an art difficult to master, and every new hire had to spend hours practicing with a tub of ice cream and a specially designed scoop before they were permitted to sell a cone.

The Mansfield Isaly’s plant was located on North Franklin Street: seen here in 1912 looking south toward the courthouse.

This view is from 1932 looking north from Park Avenue after the building was modernized.
The site, and the street itself, were eliminated by the Municipal Building.

The Empire of Ice Cream

Fun that big is difficult to contain. From the Mansfield epicenter Isaly’s spread in a wide contagion of delight.

At first it was slowly, tentatively. In 1914 there was an Isaly’s plant in Marion; by 1918 in Youngstown. In 1929 it landed in Pittsburgh and Fort Wayne, and then during the 30s the ice cream mania went viral.

At the high point in 1947, Isaly’s had 1,500 employees selling dairy products and chipped beef sandwiches in nearly 400 stores and outlets in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

There was an Isaly’s look — a uniform style that was easily recognizable in any city or small town across the ice cream kingdom. Devised in the 30s, it was a clean, shiny, rounded, well-lighted design that always looked fresh in on any streetscape.

Yet each location kept the feel of a neighborhood corner store with an ice cream counter, and some deli tables and booths.

There were nine of them in Mansfield through the years. Beginning with the first experimental outpost in 1917 at the corner of Fourth and Mulberry, there was an Isaly’s on Park Avenue, North Main Street, Marion Avenue, Lexington Avenue, Ashland Road, Diamond Street, Springmill Street and at Mansfield Square shopping center.

The very first of Isaly’s stores was at the corner of Fourth and Mulberry, seen here in its original state before it was modernized with the classic front in 1937.

The Isaly’s Fourth Street location not long before it was demolished in the 1970s.

The Lexington Avenue Isaly’s, today occupied by a bakery, was established in the early 1940s and was one of the last to close around 1970.

The Park Avenue West Isaly’s location was on the north side of the street in the block between Walnut and Mulberry.

The Isaly’s location on Main Street was just south of Fourth Street, seen in this postcard from the 40s.
It lasted for almost 20 years from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s.

Fourth & Main 1950. The young man is David Kinney proudly posing in front of Sutter’s to document the first day of his first job, age 14: the new Soda Jerk.

Today: site of Municipal Parking Lot, he would be leaning against the little gazebo structure. Next door: one of four downtown Isaly’s…there was another just two blocks down Fourth.

The Heritage

None of these places survive today, and only very few of the buildings still stand. The whole era of neighborhood soda-fountain-dairy-deli faded out when the nature of social society was redefined after the 1960s.

The Isaly’s name died away as a fond old memory that echoes in the distance.

Yet fortunately for kids today the heritage of Mansfield’s ice cream revolution is still alive and vital as ever. This is the Klondike Bar.

Kids don’t get to go to the neighborhood counter to find one today — they sell them in bulk at Walmart. The bars aren’t stamped with the Isaly’s name anymore either, but the Klondike Bar that has gone massively universal today was first created on Franklin Street when Mr. Isaly tried dipping a small block of ice cream in the chocolate.

As inheritance goes, it is a worthy legacy bequeathed to future generations from a homegrown Mansfield legend.

Isaly’s famous Skyscraper Cone was responsible, more than anything else, for establishing their widespread popularity during the first decades of the 20th century. Constructed with a specially designed scoop, the Skyscraper required hours of practice to perfect.

The Klondike Bar was invented in Mansfield, and many people claimed credit for the bar or the name. It was first marketed in 1922 and for a couple decades the wrapper featured a snowy mountain.

The now iconic polar bear didn’t make his appearance until the late 1940s.

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