The Wild West of Yester-Year

Ice Cream in the Old West
By Rachel Kovaciny

Is there anything so delightful on a hot summer day as a scoop of ice cream? We may think of this as a fairly modern indulgence, one we can enjoy all summer thanks to electricity and modern refrigeration. But, we have enjoyed ice cream for a long, long time. While there are records of the ancient Roman and Chinese emperors enjoying iced dairy-based desserts, ice cream, the way we think of it, dates back to the 1600s in Europe.

Here in America, the first ice cream parlor in New York City opened around 1790. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both big fans of ice cream and collected exotic recipes for different flavors. At first, ice cream was mainly available to rich, upper-class people. But then, in 1851, Jacob Fussell built an ice cream factory in Pennsylvania. His mass-production of ice cream made it much cheaper than freezing one little batch at a time. And that made it available to a wider section of society. By 1873, soda fountains were popping up in lots of cities and towns, places where anyone could get ice cream mixed with carbonated water to make a refreshing, cooling treat.

But all of that is East Coast history. What about the Old West? Could cowboys and pioneers enjoy ice cream too? Yes, they could. And they did! In 1843, Nancy Johnson patented the hand-cranked ice cream churn, a device that let anyone make ice cream, provided they had strong arm muscles and access to cream, sugar, ice, and salt. Before that time, they made ice cream by mixing the ingredients in a bucket or bowl, surrounding it with ice, and waiting until it froze solid. The churn made it much faster and gave you a creamier, softer dessert. It also required less ice because you added salt to the ice to keep it from melting longer.

As long as cowboys had access to ice, a churn, and the right ingredients, they could make ice cream. In the winter, when there’s ice everywhere. How about in the middle of the summer, when ice cream cravings really hit you? Cowboys and pioneers were out of luck then, right? Wrong. Getting ice in the middle of the summer was not all that hard in most parts of North America. In the winter, people would cut huge blocks of ice from frozen lakes and rivers and stack these blocks in ice houses between layers of straw or sawdust. Ice houses were usually dug into the side of a hill so that the ground around them would help insulate the ice. If you had no hills handy, you could build them from wood or sod, too. If you want to read a fantastic description of that process, pick up Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which has a whole section on how the Wilder family harvested and stored ice in the 1820s.

Even in hot, dry places like Arizona, folks could still enjoy ice cream back in the cowboy era. Legendary lawman Wyatt Earp enjoyed stopping often at an ice cream parlor in Tombstone (the owners called it an “ice cream saloon,” but it’s the same idea). Earp and his brothers, plus Doc Holliday, walked right past that very ice cream saloon on their way to the O. K. Corral as they strode into Wild West history. 

Maybe the reason we don’t think about ice cream as part of the Old West is because there aren’t many depictions on film of cowboys or pioneers enjoying it. There’s an episode of the cowboy comedy TV show F-Troop where they briefly turn the saloon into an ice cream parlor, and I remember instances of characters eating ice cream on Little House on the Prairie, but those are the only ones I can think of! Maybe Hollywood filmmakers assumed people would believe ice cream wasn’t available in the Old West, like soda pop, and didn’t want audiences to think they were being unrealistic?

Ice cream in the 1800s tasted a little different from today. It often involved eggs and had a more custard-like flavor than we’re used to. If you have access to an ice cream freezer and would like to try an old-fashioned recipe, this one comes from my great-grandma, Augusta Ohlendorf, and makes the richest, creamiest vanilla ice cream I have ever tasted.

Old-Fashioned Vanilla Ice Cream:
1 quart cream
10 egg yolks—beaten
2 quarts plus 2 cups cold milk—divided
1/2 ounce unflavored gelatin
(2 Knox packets)
3 cups sugar
4 Tbsp. Vanilla extract

Soak the gelatin in 2 cups of cold milk. Meanwhile, slowly bring the 2 quarts of milk to a boil, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Add the gelatin mixture and mix well. Remove from heat. Gently stir in the beaten egg yolks, cream, and sugar. Stir in vanilla. Pour into a 4-quart ice cream freezer and follow the manufacturer’s directions to turn it into ice cream. Enjoy your summer treat!