From “soda jerks” to Cinco de Mayo sweet corn scoops at Fosselman’s — Alhambra’s ice cream history
As summer approaches — and in memory of ice cream icon Bill Fosselman who died a few weeks ago — we explore Alhambra’s sweet past.
By Joyce Amaro, Alhambra Preservation Group | From the Archives: This story was originally published 10.5.2010.
Alhambra once had as many family-owned ice cream parlors on some blocks as there are car dealerships on parts of Main Street today.These soda fountains — complete with a counter and round stools where families enjoyed delectable hand-made chocolate shakes, malts, phosphates and banana splits — are all but gone in Alhambra. Just one of the old-school variety remains: Fosselman’s, which has adapted its rich ice cream history to the city’s contemporary diversity.
Part of the great westward migration, Alhambra's ice cream parlor owners made their way to Southern California at the turn of the 20th century to seek their fortune in the Golden State.
John Fosselman, whose grandfather came from Iowa and went on to open Fosselman’s Ice Cream Company, explained that the ethnic legacy of the migrants probably contributed to their tendency toward the dairy trade.
“One of the reasons as to why there was so much ice cream and dairy in that area is the fact that there was a very big German immigrant community,” he said. “I think it was just that the people brought the trade with them.”
In 1912, a few years before Fosselman’s grandfather opened his business, Alhambra's Main Street already boasted four ice cream parlors, all located within two blocks of each other and owned by migrants from the Midwest. The Alhambra Drug Company, owned and operated by Missouri-natives Millard and Iola Lucas, was located at First and Main Street. It featured “Ice Cream and Ices Made to Order by the Gallon.” Just east of Garfield Avenue and Main Street was the Dew Drop Inn, an ice cream parlor operated by Raymond and Jessie Canniff, a 20-something couple from Ohio. With a name like Dew Drop Inn, one can only imagine the cool treats served up by this fun-loving ice cream shop! Midwestern migrant families also owned the other two ice cream parlors, the F.B. Elwood Drug Co. and Samson’s Ice Cream and Confections Shop.
One man who originally made his way west with John Fosselman’s grandfather was Leo Anderson. The two parted ways, though, in Southern California, eventually running competing ice cream parlors. Leo’s was located where the new Volkswagen Dealership recently opened, and across the street from the current Fosselman’s. Norman Rockwell, a winter resident of Alhambra in the 1930s and 40s, frequented this soda fountain and Leo's Ice Cream Parlor, and its “soda jerks,” or servers of ice cream sodas, may have been the inspiration for many of his Saturday Evening Post covers that featured ice cream parlor-themed paintings.
One of those soda jerks was Tom Shea, 76, who worked at Leo’s as a high school student in the 1940s. “People that wanted good ice cream came to Alhambra,” he said. Shea, who now works at the Chamber of Commerce, remembers fondly the huge counter top at Leo’s crowded with eager customers and days where they would go out and pick fresh flats of strawberries to make toppings.
Today, Shea can be found many hot afternoons (and not so hot ones) across the street at Fosselman’s, licking favorites such as chocolate raspberry mouse, fresh peach or something seasonal like blueberry or strawberry in a sugar cone.
This family owned and operated business has been a fixture for the last 91 years, with a retail store on Main Street since 1941.
On a recent hot afternoon, John Fosselman was working behind a busy counter when Shea walked in for his weekly ice cream fix.
Fosselman welcomed him with a friendly groan and a special batch of fresh licorice ice cream.
While the ice cream making tradition has remained constant at Fosselman’s, the flavors have changed to fit a shifting Alhambra. “We have dulce de leche, which has more of a Latin flavor; we also do sweet corn during Cinco de Mayo,” Fosselman said. Asian flavors include lychee, ginger, matcha, yuzu and taro — one of the best sellers. “We learn how to do all this from our customers who walk into the store or chefs we deal with,” Fosselman said. “So I guess you can say it keeps us on our toes to say the least.”
Posts from the Past is brought to you by Alhambra Preservation Group – a non-profit organization working to identify, protect and celebrate Alhambra’s historical, architectural and cultural resources through education, advocacy and awareness-building programs. Visit us at www.AlhambraPreservation.org.