LIVINGSTON — There is no limping old man in a purple crushed velvet jacket and top hat to welcome the rare visitor to the Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream factory.
There are no Oompa-Loompas tending rivers of chocolate and fields of sweets behind the vanilla concrete-block and stucco walls along Livingston’s Main Street.
Wilcoxson’s headquarters is less palatial than Willy Wonka’s fictional factory and has more gleaming stainless steel machinery than employees —22 work in the company’s factories in Livingston and Billings and its Great Falls warehouse. Still, folks can be forgiven for their flights of fancy when imagining Wilcoxson’s inner workings.
The ice cream maker almost never grants interviews, does not offer tours and does not advertise. The only signs marking its headquarters are a small one on a glass door and one facing an alley in the back.
Wilcoxson’s has continued to keep its low profile this year, the hundredth since the father of the current owner, 89-year-old Harold Wilcoxson, started the business. The company isn’t doing much to commemorate the occasion.
It’s rolling out a 100-year anniversary logo and making T-shirts bearing the logo, its “Stuck in a Rut” ice cream flavor cartoon and the phrase, “We’ve been stuck in a rut for 100 years making the best ice cream on earth.” The shirts won’t be sold in stores, though.
“(If) people want them, our phone numbers are on all the cartons. They can always call,” company president Matt Schaeffer said.
The dreamers of dreams
It’s unclear when the company started making ice cream, said Doug Grieve, a Livingston native who worked at the retail store downtown selling candy and ice cream. He’s tracked down the history of the company over the years.
It was founded by Carl Wilcoxson and Harry Swingley as Wilcoxson’s Confectionary in 1912, making candy first before moving into ice cream production shortly after, as Grieve discovered after recently purchasing a 1916 Livingston High School annual. There was an ad for Wilcoxson’s Confectionary and Ice Cream in the back.
Shortly after World War I, candy maker Joe Ruegg became a partner, and the company began shipping candy all over the country, Grieve said. But ice cream steadily grew into a bigger part of the business, and in 1927 Wilcoxson’s began delivering ice cream to Yellowstone National Park.
It was a little harder getting the ice cream out in those days, he said. Ice cream was loaded into metal cans, which were put in wooden casks packed with crushed ice and salt to keep them cold, and sent on down to Gardiner on trucks and the Northern Pacific railroad.
Soon the ice cream-making portion of the business split from the candy operations — both were made in back of the retail store — and moved into its current location, Grieve said. In 1949, a store and manufacturing area was opened in Billings making ice cream novelties such as fudge bars.
It wasn’t long after that when Grieve met Harold Wilcoxson. The two became friends, drag racing together at Gallatin Field outside Belgrade in the late 1950s. Wilcoxson — a “very quiet man,” Grieve said — declined an interview request.
The retail stores were seen as a “necessary evil,” said Grieve, who began working at the Livingston store in the mid-1960s. That store was finally sold in the 1970s to the then-owner of the Mint Bar. The business turned completely to wholesale ice cream manufacturing then. Candy making equipment was sold to Brockel’s Chocolates in Billings, Grieve said.
The two were still drag racing then too, Wilcoxson in a 1970 Chevelle with 450 horsepower and Grieve in a 1972 Buick GS. The Chevelle was the “epitome of hotrods” and Wilcoxson would usually spot Grieve some distance on the strip — an act of charity for which Grieve would make him pay.
“He used to watch my taillights a lot,” Grieve joked. “But it was fun.”
Candy is dandy
In 1985, Schaeffer joined the company, painting trucks. It was a foot in the door, he said. Soon enough he was running the Yellowstone truck route, which he did for 12 years.
Now he serves as president, working side by side with Wilcoxson, who shows up for work every day and keeps his hand in the day-to-day business, sometimes literally. Before Schaeffer toured the facility with the, Chronicle, he was discussing the intricacies of a new fudge flavor with Wilcoxson, each dipping into a sample bottle to taste the potential ingredient for Moose Tracks and other flavors.
Ice cream starts out as raw milk and cream, delivered through a door off East Clark Street into big tanks to be measured for each batch. The two ingredients go into a 600-gallon stainless steel pasteurizer where the mixture is heated for an hour then held for another 30 minutes before it’s pumped through a homogenizer and becomes ice cream mix, Schaeffer said.
“These vat pasteurizers are the secret to good ice cream,” he said. “They have liquefiers, they have blenders out there, but you still can’t beat a vat pasteurizer.”
Finished mix then has fruit, fudge and other ingredients added in and is then cooled in refurbished 1950s-era freezers because “they still make the best ice cream,” Schaeffer said.
Intensive quality control and efficiency is key to the longevity of Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream. That’s why the company runs its own trucks, Schaeffer said. Rather than a diesel-powered Freon compressor blowing cold air on product like some refrigerated trucks, Wilcoxson’s uses cold-plate freezers that evenly chill the ice cream for 12 to 14 hours, even during an 80- or 90-degree day, Schaeffer said.
And, of course, they have to taste test the ice cream as it’s made to ensure each batch is up to snuff. It never gets old, Schaeffer said, although he has lost a tiny bit of his sweet tooth over his 27-year career.
“I can’t eat it at 7 o’clock in the morning any more, kind of gets to me a little bit,” Schaeffer said. “But I can eat by 9.”
He also credits the company’s slow growth and size as part of its viability. Wilcoxson’s could deliver across the Northwest or more if it wanted, but that would threaten its quality. The more shifts that are run, the less you have of the right people making sure everything’s done right, Schaeffer said.
As it stands, the company delivers to Cody and Sheridan in Wyoming, to Browning and Havre. It doesn’t really deliver past Missoula, but folks come down from Polson and Hamilton to meet trucks there because they want it so bad, he said.
Taken all together, Schaeffer isn’t surprised that Wilcoxson’s is the last true manufacturer of ice cream in Montana. He believes it’ll remain so for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t think we’ll ever not (be in business),” Schaeffer said. “We’ll see. Time will tell. We make really good quality ice cream.”
At the West College Street Pickle Barrel ice cream shop on a rainy Tuesday, 8-year-old Soren Harnett wholeheartedly agreed with the company president.
“I like how caramel apple, they make it, the ice cream green and taste like apple and put really good caramel inside,” Soren said.
It’s his favorite flavor, narrowly edging out bubble gum. Soren was there with his mother, Mary O’Rourke, and friend Kate Galindo, also 8. Kate favored the bubble gum flavor too but also likes the strawberry flavor because of the chunks of strawberry inside, she said.
The three were there to celebrate the two 8-year-olds’ performance in a school play. O’Rourke said they’ve eaten Wilcoxson’s ice cream at the shop for the past four years to mark celebratory occasions, big moments and small ones, like Mondays and Tuesdays, as well as first rains and snows of the season, she added with a laugh.
They didn’t know much about Wilcoxson’s, just that it’s made in Montana, that it’s family-owned and that the ice cream is “creamy, delicious sweetness.”
And maybe that’s really all one needs to know.
“Every day is a day to get ice cream,” Soren said.
Jason Bacaj may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2635.