Monday, June 22, 2009

Alber's Ice Cream/Union Dairy; Freeport, IL

I took my four year old son, Henry camping a couple weekends ago. Ever been camping with a four-year old?

Anyway, he loved it and we more or less accomplished my goal, which was to give him his first real overnight camping experience so when we start doing longer trips, he'll be used to it. After doing a few backyard campouts, this was our first real foray out into the wild world.

We ventured out about an hour from the city, to nearby Rock Cut State Park, which is a very nice little state park that I've visited and camped at before. They have two lakes--one that's used for fishing, another with a sandy beach, and the campground where the tent campers (as opposed to RV campers) set up is situated nicely between the two lakes. Henry, however, in his typical assertive-for-no-apparent-reason-about-things-he-doesn't-even-have-the-faintest-clue-what-he's-talking-about way, told me early and often that he did "NOT want to ride in a paddle boat. NO. WAY. DAD."

I've learned not to try and convince him that paddle boats are fun, or to even ask what he's got against them, anyway, since he's never been on one. No point to it. Mmm hm. No paddleboat. No way, no how. Check.

After getting an early start, setting up camp, and loading up on firewood and worms for fishing, we were ready to get something to eat, and I was determined to avoid the campground hot dog stand and the endless highway exit fast food options.

We cast about for a while, then found ourselves in the nice little old town of Freeport, Illinois, which just happens to be one of the sites where Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas in 1858, as the two stumped around Illinois in their respective campaigns to become the state's next US senator. The debates all centered around the issue of the day--slavery, and are said to be where Lincoln's mettle was proven and his chops were honed for his presidential run just two years later.

More importantly, though, directly behind Debate Square, where the historic event is commemorated, there's a really cool old ice cream parlor.

I saw the art deco facade when I turned a blind corner and knew that my aimless wandering had paid off. Sometimes when you're hungry it's tempting to give in and just hit the Denny's or the Culver's off the exit ramp, but then you find a sleeper like this place just loaded with old time character and charm.

I was hoping for a patty melt or something similarly diner-minded, but we found out that the "grill" portion of this establishment is closed on Sundays, so we had no choice but to eat massive ice cream sundaes for our lunch. Here they are:

Mine was the turtle sundae, that's it on the left, and Henry is all about the mint ice cream, so he got what they were calling a mint meltaway sundae, which had mint chip ice cream, hot fudge, a ton of whipped cream, and a bunch of crushed Andee's mints all over the top and sides.

The ice cream in this place was good (it's Cedar Crest), and they appear to be doing a nice job jazzing it up with their sauces, toppings, and all the fixin's, but the reason this place is worth an hour drive (or at least a detour if you're heading west) is its perfectly preserved condition. It's beautiful. Pristine. It could (and probably should) be in a museum, but it's not; it's still functioning as this town's little local restaurant and ice cream parlor, the counters are staffed by local high school girls, and honestly, most of the people in there looked at me like I was nuts for taking pictures of the shiny chrome and Formica, the amazing soda fountain set-up that runs down the center of the long oval of counter seating, and their sweet old jade green Hamilton Beach spindle milkshake mixer.

But I'm NOT crazy. THEY'RE the ones who are crazy for not recognizing beauty and art when it's right under their noses! Look at that setup!

The ice cream dipping cabinets are still working, they're using those pumps for their syrups and flavorings, the hot well holds the hot fudge and caramel at just the right temperature, and there's not a speck of dirt or a bent piece of stainless to be found. Do people realize how rare that piece is? How incredible it is that no one ripped it out during all these years?!

Remember what I said about camping with a four year old. I'll just say this; no matter how many times they tell you they want to "help", they really don't. Oh, and we now know that four is not old enough to apply Deep Woods Off. But if you let'em get really hungry and then promise them a big ice cream sundae, they're putty in your hands.

Henry doesn't understand why they would prepare and bring the dad's ice cream sundae a full ten minutes before they prepare and bring the kid's. I didn't get it either.

Anyway, after a couple of big ice cream sundaes, our stomachs were cooled down and full, our faith was restored in the world, and we headed back to the campground for some short-attention-span fishing and a few good hours of playing with the pump (endless fun, apparently).

We did our campfire dinner, had the obligatory s'more or two, strummed the guitar a bit, and then settled down in our sleeping bags for some flashlight play and, eventually, sleep. I'm fairly sure I slept at least a little.

Whoa! Camping with a four year old! No one ever said it was restful. Remember what I said earlier about training Henry for longer camping trips? Maybe I'm the one who actually needs a warm-up outing or two.

I won't say the ice cream sundaes at Alber's/Union Dairy were the highlight of the trip...but let me just put it this way; I'm glad I know it's there in such close proximity to the campground for next time.


Tigerlily said...

Love it! How fun...Can't wait to camp! I think we'll do next summer.
Ice creams places like that are hard to find and this one looks great! Some day with heat and bored kids will find us there!

art said...

My family used to stop at the Wendy's for frostys on the way up to Apple Canyon (near Galena). I believe this would be a wiser choice for a pit stop. This is going on my list for our next road trip up there.

Michelle said...

I'm lucky enough to live in Freeport and Union Dairy is the best place for ice cream around!!
My Great Grandfather used to deliver milk for Union Dairy in the 1800's...this place has alot of history!

Amanda said...

If you're looking for the best burgers around to go with the best ice cream (of course Union Dairy rocks!) there are two places to try. One is Ridott Corners, which is on Rte.20 just east of Freeport. It's the place with the giant wooden bear out front. It's not exactly kid friendly though.

The other one is Little John's tap in Pearl City. It's on the main drag, Rte. 73, on the east side of the street. It's a little hole in the wall place, but they have the most wonderful food. Much more kid friendly, I have many memories of eating there with dad and the guys.