Sunday, August 18, 2013

Shakes, Cones, and Salvation: Mister Softee's Role in Civil Defense


Imagine that its summer, 1959 in a major U.S. city. Let's call it Anytown, USA. Its a sweltering 96 degrees and the asphalt feels like its sticking to your shoes. Mom won't let you back in the house because "its summer, and you need to go out and play with the other kids". You're tired of playing Wiffle Ball. You're sunburned and sweat is running down your neck like a faucet. You just can't bear another second of this awful heat wave...and then echoing off of the buildings you hear the familiar jingle of the Mister Softee ice cream truck.

Like every other kid, you quickly run home to BEG your Mother for a few cents for the ice cream man and quickly chase after him before his truck turns the corner and heads to the next block. Once you flag him down, you get your vanilla soft serve cone with sprinkles...and all is right with the world. Wiffle Ball can resume in 5 minutes. Batter up!

The ice cream truck has offered a sweet summer escape for millions of kids of all ages around the world for over 80 years. It doesn't matter what era you live in or what your age is, frozen desserts are a popular commodity and probably always will be. Here in the U.S. the three big names include Good Humor, Jack N' Jill, and of course Mister Softee. The Mister Softee company traces its roots back to  West Philly and 1954. Two brothers named William and James Conway started the company with a Chevrolet panel van, a generator, and a soft serve machine. They sold shakes, cones, and sundaes all over Philadelphia and quickly made a name for themselves. Within two years the Conways branched out, ordered a fleet of trucks and spread across the East Coast. By 1958, franchises grew across the states. A British vehicle fleet manager visited the U.S. in 1957 and liked what he saw in Mister Softee, so he worked out a franchise deal and by 1959 the Mister Softee trucks became a familiar sight in West London and Kent, England. Even today, the company manages to turn a tidy profit by supplying a hungry public with the sweets they crave curbside from Chicago to China! 

During their heyday in 1959, Mister Softee ordered 800 ice cream trucks from the Boyertown Body Works in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. This company was located some 56 miles from the birthplace of Mister Softee himself, and was known for their long-standing tradition of quality workmanship dating back to 1872. The demands of the fleet business required a vehicle that was sturdy and dependable, but easy on the pocket book. A Ford truck would certainly meet those demands.


Boyertown Body Works Factory, 1956. Photo Credit: Coachbuilt.com

Boyertown Body Brochure Cover, 1959

Boyertown Truck Bodies Brochure, 1959
The order for the Mister Softee ice cream trucks specified that they be built on a 1-ton Ford commercial truck chassis, and utilize their heavy duty 262 cubic inch inline six cylinder engine. The trucks would eventually be fitted with a stainless counter, functional sink with potable water, a generator, and soft serve / freezer machine. The mobile kitchen would be able to serve several hundred people with fresh food without having to replenish supplies back at headquarters. It was this capability that made the Mister Softee appealing to Civil Defense coordinators during the cold war era. Mister Softee, it appears, would soon roll up his sleeves and help make America safer.

From the Southern Missourian, August 6th, 1961.
If the Russians attacked us in the late 1950's and early 1960's, your chocolate malt would simply have to wait until after the H-bomb. You see, many franchise owners pledged their vehicle's use during an emergency as part of the Civil Defense effort.  Franchise owners like Raymond Volkerding, of Cape Girardeau, Missouri told the local paper that he'd press his kitchen on wheels into service if needed. What's more neighborly than that? You have fresh water storage, electricity for cooking, and refrigeration to keep food and beverages safe from spoilage. All of this plus a loudspeaker to address the public. As it turns out, the Boyertown-built trucks were more versatile than originally thought.






You can spot the Civil Defense logo affixed to the side of the Mister Softee truck in this collection of vintage television advertisements. It appears at :48 into this clip.



Why the heck am I yammering on about all of this stuff? Sarah and I came across a very unrestored example of a Boyertown-built 1958 Ford commercial truck in its original Mister Softee color scheme this summer at the McClean County Antique Automobile Club car show. Besides the fact that we dig old cars and trucks, this thing spoke volumes about the time period it came from. The artwork, the remains of a Civil Defense logo, the simple saying on the back warning motorists to "watch for our children", not just anyone's kids, but "ours". Here's a few shots of this time capsule as it appears today.


The Civil Defense logo appears on both sides of the truck.

The Civil Defense Logo as it Originally Appeared.














The current owner plans to restore it to functional condition and serve frozen goodies at car shows in central  Illinois near old Route 66. Not a bad second life for an old workhorse, eh?



That's the strange tale of the American Mister Softee truck in the Cold War era. Being a Gen-X'er, I admire this relic from a time of neighborly responsibility and civic duty. The past seems like a time when people took things seriously, even selling ice cream. It was deeper than just frozen food...it was a sense of community. Could you imagine a business owner willing to lend his or her equipment, time and fuel to the government today to help the public stay alive during an emergency? Maybe. Maybe not.

Is all of this worth writing a book about? Not really. Is it worthy of a blog post? Perhaps. All this talk about ice cream and the end of  the world makes me want a hot fudge sundae. I think I even hear the ice cream jingle outside. Who's got any change?




-D

Learn more about Boyertown Body Works
Learn more about Mister Softee
Learn more about Civil Defense Supplies



25 comments:

  1. Found this through Hemmings blog today, What a well researched and well written piece! The subject matter is fascinating as well. Thanks! -casey

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    1. Thank you for the comments, Casey. I truly appreciate the feedback. Have a great week, and happy motoring.

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  2. A few years ago a Mr. Softee truck was making the rounds in the neighborhood and my wife and I went out to buy an ice cream. As we were waiting, it suddenly occurred to me that the truck looked *exactly* like the Mr. Softee trucks that used to visit my grandmother's old neighborhood when I was a kid. I wandered around the front of the truck to look at the registration tag and sure enough, it read 1958 FORD.

    Nice to see an old workhorse still in regular service for 50 years.

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  3. Wow I was so sad when they desided to retire the Mr. Softee on our area of St. Louis, Mo. To this day I still remember the sound of the music they played when it came down the street. It was very refreshing to hear it again. I miss the taste of the Ice cream. It was the best soft serve anywhere. I wish Mr. Softee was still around.

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  4. This was a great piece. I really enjoyed learning more about my favorite ice cream. Can't wait to go to NY to get me a cone with rainbow sprinkles.

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  5. During a summer break from college, I was employed as a Mr. Softee truck driver/vendor. The franchise was located in Binghamton NY and the year was 1971. Not only did I make a great paycheck but the perks made it even better. All the ice cream one could eat as well all those many people encountered while driving my daily route. Also, I still have in my possession a Mr. Softee iron-on patch given to the drivers to be added to our required white T-shirts. Nothing but fond memories! :)

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  6. Thank you so so much for giving me a blast from the past!! Every summer, Mister Softee is still missed! Nothing made being a kid in St. Louis better than running up to get a "cherry sundae" and lingering for a moment to feel the a/c, that was so cold, hitting you in the face on a hot day. I've never had better ice cream, and after 50 years, still haven't found anyone that makes a sundae using maraschino cherries. Thanks for a wonderful memory.

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  7. 1872-1990 Boyertown body produced trucks and carriages, back when we actually BUILT something, so sad to see what we have become!

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  8. very cool. as a child i lived just outside the city limits of williamsport, PA. the mr softee truck got out to us 2 - 3 times a week, in the summer. he picked a central spot, there weren't that many kids in that neighborhood, in the sticks, but he knew us all and waited for every one of us to make it to him. can still here that jingle wafting across the yards and fields. was, of course, the same type of truck shown above. then they were, practically, brand-new...giving my age away. live in a chicago suburb now, for MANY years. sure miss ol' mr softee.

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  9. Mister softee truck comes down my street almost daily here on the west side of Indy. Yummy!

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  10. I was a child in Boyertown in the days when trucks were being outfitted for Mister Softee. My family served the Body Works workers both from our sandwich shop in the middle of town and from sandwich trucks (also built in Boyertown) that went to the factory during lunch breaks. Many classics from early creators of the American Automobile, and from the Boyertown Auto Body Works, can be seen today at the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles.

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  11. Grew up in Jersey City, NJ. Good Humor came in the afternoon ~ 2-3pm and Mr. Softee was there at Bayview/Arlington Avenues ~7:30-8pmish. We were told that we could have one or the other so, I would pick GH (M, W & F) and MrS (T & R). The next week would be the reverse. Saturday was a chance to get both as the grandparents were usually visiting! However, on Sundays, we went to the REAL Ice Cream Parlor (Brummer's at THE Junction). Of course, the last comment won't mean anything to most readers, but anyone from *that* city has, from childhood days, a favorite Ice Cream Place in his/her neighborhood. Fischers, Mueller's, Shluers, et al.

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  12. Right now, as of this writing, there is an an active, ongoing effort in the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, to ban Mr. Softee from operating and selling their ice cream. For the few who do not know Hoboken, it is a small, mile square city that is located on the banks of The Hudson River, directly across from New York City. (Although most of us assume that everyone has heard of Hoboken because of it's famous history in so many arenas, I became aware of the fact that some folks in other parts of this country are unaware of the city). In any event, some people living in Hoboken are upset that Mr. Softee parks in a certain spot near a local park and the residents are annoyed that they have to listen to the Mr. Softee music played over and over for the time the vendor is parked. How sad!

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  13. Thank you for this! Love the photos and history!

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  14. I enjoyed this story! Something I had never heard of before!

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  15. Back in the early 60's I dated a very cute young guy that worked on a Mister Softee truck in Indianapolis. Haven't thought about that for years!!! Nice to have pleasant memories restored.

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  16. Mister Softee does comes around daily here in Middletown NJ, and it brings back memories of the 60's when I was a kid, and "MRS" Softee, a WONDERFUL woman, came around in the Mr. Softee truck. She became friends of the family. WONDERFUL MEMORIES! THANKS!

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  17. I grew up in Philly and South Jersey. Mr. Softee was a regular visitor in both!! Later in the small town of Maple Shade and roadside Mr. Softee was built. Thanx to you for bringing back some wonderful memories! Here in NC there are very few if any Mr. Softees!

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  18. My dad owned the franchise of Mr. Softee in Dallas Texas. It was always cool to be the kid in school of the ice cream man. The downside was us kids were known and Mr. Softee's! but it was a great time and I will never forget the jingle on the trucks. My biggest regret was that the drivers were under expicit orders to NOT give me or my brothers ice cream unless they cleared it with my dad. Unfortunately, there was an accident in the warehouse one night. A poor worker lost his life when a propane valve was left open and the warehouse blew up with most of the trucks inside. That was pretty much the end of Mr. Softee in the Dallas area. I do beleive some one else has revived it in the area, and hopefully is keeping that ultimate kids dream alive!

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  19. when i was a Kid i chased that truck for Blocks sometimes because it took me that long to run home and beg for a Dime.but was always worth the run in the end.Sad to say that years later here in KoKoMo Indiana there was a bad ending.a Child ran around the truck and a Drunk driver hit them. the drunks lawyer somehow got the court to place the blame on the Mr Softy driver because his truck was why the Kid ran into the street. the truck owner lost everything.i always believed the court was wrong but didn't matter.Glad there are someplaces Mr Softy still going.

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  20. Well researched and written. Huff Post writers could learn volumes from you.

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  21. Nice to see an old Mister Softee Truck again. This looks exactly like one of my Dad's old trucks. In early 1959 he bought two new trucks from Mister Softee. He was a Franchisee for 14 years and owned as many as 10 trucks at a time. Eventually he became a distributor for Mister Softee in the Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin area. This particular truck is a 1959 model and originally had illuminated plastic "Coneheads" above the windshield, but they were easily damaged by tree branches; so we replaced the header (above the windshield) with a fiberglass "1962 style" replacement. Also it seems to be missing the two Sweden soft serve freezers that came with the truck.

    Mister Softee regularly produced trucks from around1957 thru 1962. After 1962 they would produce trucks on special order and eventually restarted limited production. In the late 1960s they remanufactred older trucks that my Dad would sell to new franchsees. I believe 1961 was it's most prolific year producing and estimated 1500 vehicles in both Standard and Deluxe configurations.

    Mister Softee is the only original 1950s manufacturer of this type of vehicle to survive. Others in the time frame of about 1958 to 1963 included Freezer Fresh, Dairy Dan and Jolly Roger. Tastee Freez even produced soft serve Chrevolet trucks in the early 1960s but quickly sold off their mobile business.

    I had similar experiences to Chip. Once, one of our trucks was passing by where my friends and I were playing and my friends urged me to get us all some "free" ice cream. Oh boy, did I hear about it when the Driver wanted my Dad to credit him for the "sale,"

    Personally, I drove a truck in Bridgeview, Illinois from 1970 thru 1973 and put myself through college. I sold small cones for 15 cants up to banana splits for 75 cents.

    By the early-mid 1970s insurance costs were steadily rising, not to mention the cost of fuel and my Dad sold out. That 10KW generator would burn 20 gallons a fuel each day.


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  22. Hey Daryl, thank you for the posting. Excellent story I always love learning about interesting historical stories like this. I found my way here from a re-post about this article on Jalopnik.com. Only 1 point I disagree with "Could you imagine a business owner willing to lend his or her equipment, time and fuel to the government today to help the public stay alive during an emergency?" Yes, I can. I don't want to name names, however I work with a fortune 50 company that is well known for volunteering & assisting (time/effort/money/equipment/logistics/communications etc...) during natural disasters. In fact if my company didn't I wouldn't be working here.

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    1. Thank you for dropping by and for the comments. I realize that my claim about businesses not willing to help out was a bold statement and its not necessarily true in all cases. I think in individual cases or disasters, good people & groups will always shine through. That still rings true. We've seen it in New Orleans, Joplin, Norman, and other places. I'm very glad to hear of companies doing good in times of need today.

      I still feel a more wide-spread Civil Defense type network similar to what we had in the past would be a tough sell in this day & age due to mistrust of the government or fears of theft or harm. (Think of "doomsday preppers" and other media stories of isolationism, survivalism and bunkers with security systems, etc). Most of those TV shows are a display of someone's ammo cache and shooting ability. That's TV of course. Reality may not play out like "Zombieland" did.

      I hope we don't have to explore this scenario...but I also just listened to a news report about the cold war ramping up again thanks to the conflict in Syria. I appreciate the feedback, and thanks for reminding us that good-natured folks that are still out there!

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  23. That civil defense logo looks awfully similar to the deathly hallows symbol from Harry Potter.

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