Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dessert, Then a Walk

Soon after discovering Wilcoxson's ice cream in Cody, WY, we learned that the company had a plant in Billings, MT.

With the help of Joanie, wife of Chuck's cousin Mike, we were able to arrange a tour of the plant where they prepared some of the ice cream novelties: ice cream bars, fudge bars, and ice cream sandwiches.

When we arrived, we met Brenda, and Chuck announced, "Hi, I'm Chuck and I'm here to
pick up the ice cream formula."

After a second of silence, Brenda burst into laughter, "You mean a tour, right?"

She was working at the retail counter that morning and began the tour with a little history of the company, founded by Carl Wilcoxson in 1912 in Livingston, Montana. Initially specializing in candy making (Carl started Wilcoxson’s Kandy Kitchen with Harry Swingley), Carl teamed with Joe Reugg and began churning premium ice cream in 1917.

Today, Carl's son, Harold, who joined the business in 1946, heads the company. At age 85, he still has a hands-on approach to overseeing the operation, headquartered in Livingston, MT.

When Kate asked about the butterfat content, Brenda called in Brian, who was responsible for much of the production of the ice cream novelties.

His answer was the kind of cautious response that one gives a visitor when wanting to guard company secrets.

We moved away from any more specific questions by asking about the machines in the back room. Since there were no production lines in operation the day we visited, we were invited to see the assembly lines.

The machine above contained the forms for making fudge bars and ice cream bars. Sticks are dropped into the forms as they move down the line.

If ice cream bars are being prepared, they are double-dipped in a chocolate coating in the center of this machine (left) before being wrapped and packaged.

Our brief look into the freezer (-18°) revealed three-gallon containers of ice cream. When Chuck saw the huckleberry containers, the cost of $120 to ship one of these dessert prizes didn't seem all that unreasonable.

Our last stop was the machine that produced the ice cream sandwiches. The wafers came down each wing (near the top of the photo), were filled with ice cream while standing straight up, and then packaged.

Kris King, writing for Distinctly Montana, describes Wilcoxson's ice cream as: "The morphing of taste and texture, of cool, creamy, and sweet, from hard to supple to fluid on your tongue is ice cream’s magic. All life’s sorrows melt away for as long as the ice cream lasts."

After our tour, we took a walk around the original Billings train depot.

Nearby we found the Rex Hotel, built in 1919 by Buffalo Bill Cody’s personal chef. It was frequented by the likes of Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane in its early days.

We just liked the facades of these next two buildings. This building was built in 1899 and the one below in 1900.

The Montana Power Co. building looks beautiful, although the former company's former management may not be at all popular with the company's former customers.

We considered this Greyhound sign a real find. It was in very good condition, and there was a schedule posted in the window. However, there were no signs of buses around the building the day we were there.

We finished our walk at the railroad depot. The arrival of the railroad in 1882 signaled the real beginning of the private townsite of Billings, named for the Northern Pacific's President, Frederick Billings. This depot built in 1909 replaced the first temporary station.

One of the last photo stops was this window of a caboose permanently parked at the depot.

There was beauty all around Billings--some on a grand scale, some on a scale that requires close inspection.

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