LIVINGSTON - You practically need detective Sam Spade to get the scoop on Wilcoxson's Ice Cream.

The concrete-block and stucco building looks like a vanilla-white fortress on Livingston's Main Street. There are no signs proclaiming that this is the business that's been a Montana institution since 1912.

No windows offer a glimpse inside. All the doors are locked. Only the black numbered address, 314 - as obvious as a tarantula on angel food cake, as Philip Marlowe would say - and the muffled mechanical roar from inside offer clues that this is indeed the outfit that has delighted generations of ice cream junkies.

Around back in the alley, things look up. There's a modest-size sign with the familiar red script, Wilcoxson's Ice Cream. And there's a professional-looking woman, Roberta, heading back inside after talking to a driver.

Harold Wilcoxson is out, gone for his weekly visit to Wilcoxson's creamery in Billings, where they make fudge bars and ice cream sandwiches. Roberta offers sympathy but little encouragement about the chances of talking to the company's president. He's a very private man.

Indeed. Over the past 20 years, the company has turned down virtually all Chronicle requests for interviews.

"We're entirely too busy this time of year," Matt Schaeffer, vice president, says over the roar of machinery. "There just not enough of us here. I'm down here making Moose Tracks."

He adds that, "We try to stay away from newspaper articles." Bad experiences with reporters. He chuckles. "If you don't give them anything to print, they can't print anything."

Asked if he might possibly do an interview during a break, Schaeffer says, "Break? I started at 3 o'clock this morning and I haven't sat down all day."

That was more than eight hours ago. He says it will stay this busy probably until October.

The Internet is another dead end. The company has no Web page, does no bragging about itself.

Others do brag about it - restaurants and cafes from Cooke City to West Yellowstone, Stevensville and Montana City proclaim, "We use only Wilcoxson's premium ice cream." One California Web designer and Montana expatriate has posted his description of Wilcoxson's Chocolate Runs Through It as "awesome, reality defying and just plain indulgent."

Back on the trail in Livingston, it's 97 degrees and clues are about as scarce as ice cream sundaes at Weight Watchers.

Neighboring businesses say they know nothing.

County offices turn up little - a glowing health inspection and an appraised value of more than half a million dollars on the creamery buildings.

The only nuggets of information are at the Livingston-Park County Public Library. There's a big blue volume, "History of Park County, Montana, 1984," but it has more information about Dairy Queen than Wilcoxson's, which apparently submitted just one short paragraph.

It says Carl Wilcoxson and Joe Reugg started the ice cream business in 1917 at 116 S. Main St., and in 1946 Carl's son, Harold, joined the business. The ice cream plant moved two blocks down to its present location in 1965.

That's it. And the founding date doesn't even jibe with the 1912 date claimed by Wilcoxson's employees.

Reference librarian Jon Swenumson pulls out a 1914-1915 Polk City Directory, which supports the earlier date. On its yellow pages are ads for the Kandy Kitchen, proprietors Carl W. Wilcoxson and Harry B. Swingley.

"Klean Kandy, Karefully Koncocted Konfections, Kream Karamels at Wilcoxson's Kandy Kitchen," says one 1918 ad. "Fountain drinks with fruit juices, ice cream sodas, fancy sundaes."

It looks like the trail will end there, when something completely unexpected happens. Harold Wilcoxson answers his phone.

No, he says gruffly, he's not the one to talk to. He insists that he's pretty much out of the business now.

But you're the one who has kept the company going for more than 50 years, which is a remarkable achievement, a reporter insists.

"More like 70 or 80," he says.

Wilcoxson says he was born in 1923, which makes him 80 years old. He's been in the business since he was a boy cleaning ice cream cans. He served in the Navy during World War II, including the Normandy invasion, and then returned home.

Wilcoxson's ice cream has been sold in Yellowstone National Park probably since the 1930s, he says. Before refrigerator trucks, they had to use "packers" with cork insulation to keep the ice cream from melting.

Several questions - Is it true you used to own racing cars? Have you no family to pass the business on to? - prompt a curt "None of your business."

But in the end, Harold Wilcoxson says, the ice cream business isn't mysterious.

"There's no secret to making ice cream," Wilcoxson said. "It's a matter of using good ingredients and making a consistently good product and selling at a reasonable price."

Smaller companies fill gourmet ice cream niche

Pete Strom holds up a plastic jug labeled "Madagascar Bourbon, Pure Vanilla Extract" and offers a whiff.

This is double-strength vanilla, made from the beans of vanilla orchids, grown on islands off the coast of Africa and cured by the sun.

It costs $250 a gallon for this vanilla, Strom says, but that's what gives an intense flavor to Moo Casa Ice Cream's Cold Smoke Vanilla.

"We try to use the best of the best," Strom says. "If I'm going to have ice cream" - and all the calories that go with it - "it's going to be over the top."

If 91-year-old Wilcoxson's Ice Cream is the reclusive Greta Garbo of local ice cream makers, then 2-summers-old Moo Casa and Bridger Ridge Ice Cream could be the Olsen twins, fresh-faced upstarts raring to show what they can do.

Both companies aim to meet the Gallatin Valley's cravings for gourmet ice cream.

Moo Casa fans can custom order ice cream concoctions at The Garage on East Main Street or pick up pints at local groceries.

Bridger Ridge, made by John Watts and family in Belgrade, is sold from a sidewalk cart in front of Western Drug in the heart of Bozeman's downtown, and at the Community Food Co-op and Opus 5.

It's a surprise to find out that Moo Casa is made at the On The Rise bakery, which Strom and a partner, Todd Bennett, recently purchased.

On Thursday, Strom, clad in khaki shorts and sandals, is experimenting with mango ice cream, at the request of Dave's Sushi restaurant.

A small outfit can respond to special requests, which keeps the job creative, Strom says. The Food Co-op asked for huckleberry ice cream. He's also working on a green tea flavor.

The two biggest secrets to high-quality ice cream, Strom says, are a high level of butterfat and not folding a lot of air into the mix to make it go farther.

All Moo Casa ice cream is made in a stainless steel, 20-quart Taylor batch freezer. Surprisingly small, it isn't even 5-feet tall.

Trying to keep Moo Casa ice cream as natural as possible, Strom uses a frozen supply of Darigold cream that's free of RBGH growth hormones. Into the mix goes brown sugar, eggs, milk, flavorings and natural stabilizers made from things like seaweed.

Of course, the Oreo cookies that flavor Mad Cow Mocha aren't organic. But who cares.

Strom, 33, came to Bozeman from Minnesota to attend graduate school in marriage and family therapy, and became hooked on "a quest for the best real foods." He joined partner Zack Anderson in opening a La Parilla restaurant in Billings and in buying The Garage.

When they got the notion that Bozeman needed a gourmet ice cream maker, they went all over looking for the best, and ended up learning the business from Taos Cow in New Mexico.

Moo Casa was launched in March 2002 by Strom, Anderson and Brian and Chanelle Zimmer.

Five percent of Moo Casa's profits go to charity, like helping Bogert Pool raise money for a water slide and Hawthorne School pay for field trips.

There's one key ingredient, Strom says: "Passion. Passion for the best."

Bridger Ridge also owes its start to Minnesotans. John and Alicia Watts had a dairy farm and decided they wanted to go into the ice cream business.

After studying the secrets of ice cream making at Penn State, they checked out the ice cream freezers at Bozeman supermarkets, and saw there was strong demand for premium ice cream, but as yet no local supplier.

Two years later, Watts says, they're making ice cream at night in a commercial kitchen in Belgrade and selling from their downtown Bozeman cart during the day, Tuesdays through Saturdays.

They make super-premium ice cream, Watts says, with 15 percent butterfat, compared to 10 or 12 percent in more economical brands.

The Watts' six kids also help out, packing ice cream, cleaning up and sometimes selling.

Montana has nine months of winter, but that doesn't deter Watts.

"Alaska sells ice cream year-round, too," he says.

- By Gail Schontzler

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