Sunday, July 31, 2016

Extra-Thick Rootbeer Malt, Please!

I was pleased to see in this week's  Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Mullen's Dairy Bar in Watertown, Wisconsin has been lauded by as one of the  "21 best Old-School Ice Cream Shops in America".  Way to go, Mullen's!

Home Again.

Watertown, Wisconsin.  Late 1970s.  My friend Norm and I were just hitting the ground, after college, and were experiencing first-hand the realities of working in the real world.  Norm was working for a Watertown sod company, and I was working in a Watertown lumber yard.  I lived downtown with my piano, and two cats, Miss Riley and 3285 Unwanted. It was a 10-room strangely colored apartment with leaking skylights above an office supply store on Main Street.  In the spartan living room on Main Street, we'd spend many Saturday nights having beers, comparing notes, and working at uncovering and discovering wonderful neglected songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Using reel-to-reel tape recorders and miles of patch cords, we'd achieve multi-track recordings that we thought were spectacular. Listening to them nowadays, they aren't quite as spectacular, but still are full of the joy of being in your 20s. Looking at these two care-free musicians 6 years later, you can see us performing polka favorites almost every weekend in beer tents, taverns, and dance halls throughout the area with the Jolly Cholly Band.  Norm was the singer and sax player, and I played the accordion.

On musical Saturday nights such as these, around 8:30 or 9:00, we'd develop a thirst for something friendly and frosty. to go with our cheap cold beer and  warm music. Where else to go but Mullen's Dairy Bar, 212 West Main Street, Watertown, Wisconsin?

A Lifetime of Mullen's Dairy

Mullen's Dairy (est. 1911) was a familiar backdrop to Watertown life going 'way back to our childhood, and that's a long time ago, kiddies.

Those refillable 1/2 pint bottles made of thick glass that we received as part of our school lunch program, full of white or chocolate milk. You peeled off the heavy aluminum foil shroud, or poked a straw through it, and you could drink right out of the bottle or through your straw.

Butter, cream, and ice cream was made and packaged right in the back room of the dairy.

And the milk was home-delivered, early in the morning by Pinky Herold, with his squeely-brake delivery truck. He'd even pick up the clanky glass empties.  Pinky was Watertown's last home milk delivery driver, and he retired in 1980, the very year that the home delivery service stopped.

And, of course, there was everybody's favorite part of Mullen's operations, the Mullen's Dairy Bar, 212 West Main Street.  This retail outlet was opened in the front of the dairy, right on Main Street, in the 1930s - in those particular days it was unusual for a new establishment to call itself a "bar", with Prohibition and all . . . It was a classic Ice Cream Parlor.  

Mullen's Ice Cream!  The ice cream was made on-premises, and you could meet your friends there for a sundae, at a booth, or on a lunch-counter stool.  Fresh-roasted nuts, and just about any other topping in the world!   Remember those stainless steel holders for the paper-cone serving dishes? And, if you wanted to take some ice cream home with you, they'd pack you one right out of the soda-fountain freezer barrel, fresh.

The malts! A stainless steel shake cup - frosty on the outside, and the seemingly rock-hard thickness of a root beer malt, to pour into your paper-cone-lined stainless-steel paper cup holder. You could barely pull a Mullen's malt up through a paper straw, without the straw collapsing. But, your first taste was something you remembered for the rest of your life. Usually one steel cup was enough for two people - cheap date!

A Dark Cloud

One cold dark night in the late 1970s, Norm and I came in for our usual extra-thick root beer malts. It was shortly after "Moon" Mullen died. There were rumors of major changes to the dairy operation. Bill Mullen was behind the counter, introduced himself - the "new sheriff in town".  He'd been to college. Bill had given up a career with a container manufacturer in northern Illinois, when he moved to Watertown to take over the family business when Moon, his father, died. Reminiscent of George Bailey staying in Bedford Falls in that movie, sacrificing his plans for the sake of his family's business.

We told Bill how much Mullen's had meant to us throughout our entire lives.   Bill was forming plans to remodel the whole complex and make it look more modern and up-to-date.  He pictured a dropped ceiling instead of the high ceiling with its ancient metal ceiling fan, to save on heating bills. Paneling would modernize the institutional green walls. And those old high glass-block windows would be replaced by a nice, uniform recessed fluorescent lighting grid.

Realizing we had gotten there just in time, Norm and I told Bill in no uncertain terms that he was out of his ever-loving mind.  These things he planned to tear out were the very things people came to Mullen's for, besides the extra-thick root beer malts, that is...

Citing countless examples from real life, as we knew it, or wished it to be, we convinced Bill that the old, circa 1930s look was just now on the cutting edge of new nostalgic soda-fountain restaurant design.  "It's a Wonderful Life" was becoming a ubiquitous archetype, and this was even before the VHS boom brought the nostalgic movie into every home in the USA. The baby-boomers were just starting to shape the world. Everything the Baby Boom generation touched, was, without question, to reflect the image of their own childhood memories.

Ceiling fans, we told Bill, were a great way to cut down on the winter heating bills - they acted against the convectional heating forces of a high ceiling.  Ceiling fans would soon become a coveted item, entire stores there are, selling Casablanca ceiling fans that were patterned after the one he was about to kick to the curb.

A stark wall of institutional green lit by the diffuse beauty of glass-block windows would very soon become a trendy and nostalgic design standard.  Filtering through those glass blacks was the holy light of beloved lost childhood.

The red-seated steel-legged stools, and those old booths - people were nowadays throwing away jet-age furniture and buying imitations of the very furniture Bill was pulling out by the roots.

Bill, nodding, said he'd sincerely give it lots of thought before committing to any design. Leaving things as they were would certainly save Bill lots of money.  If that's what people wanted, why fool with success? Accept.

And, luckily for our credibility, most of the things we told Bill that night about trends turned out to be true. Over the years, Mullen's Dairy has become more like itself than ever before, and that is a very good thing.

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