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The sound of ice cream trucks is a familiar jingle in Spokane

August 1, 2018

First, you hear the sound. Even if you don’t want ice cream, you know ice cream is nearby, a block or so away. If it gets louder, you may run out. Maybe. But if it gets close enough where you can almost taste the frozen treats, it’s over. Grab your cash.

Patrick Gleesing knows all about finding that frozen pleasure center.

“I use ‘It’s A Small World’ in all my vehicles,” Gleesing said, with a laugh, of his fleet of three ice cream trucks he’s operated since 2016. “It’s the loudest. Kids know what it is. They start dancing.”

Gleesing owns CC Delivery, one of four companies that has an itinerant vendor permit from the city, the only official document you need if you’re selling prepackaged treats. Other mobile vendors, like the Scoop Truck, Brain Freeze Creamery ice cream truck and Ben & Jerry’s truck, operate using their brick-and-mortar permits and fall under other regulations such as a food handler’s permit and annual inspections.

But not Gleesing. He just has to sell his packaged goods, and sell he does. He does 34 events a year, works straight from March to September and combs the neighborhoods, looking for children – young and old – who have a stone-cold sweet tooth.

On Tuesday afternoon at a preschool on the outskirts of downtown Spokane, Gleesing pulled up and hawked his ice-cold delicacies, one at a time, to 80 children. The kids’ choices were limited, but good enough: cotton candy, rainbow, fudge bar, bubble gum, sour wower and creamsicle.

With each sale, the tots handed over a dollar bill and Gleesing handed back their treat. Joy all ’round.

“We probably sell a couple hundred pieces a day. At some stops, you sell five to 10 pieces,” he said. “Some blocks are really good, some neighborhoods are better than others.”

Asked about the best spots to sell treats to wanting hands, Gleesing was cautious.

“I really don’t want to give up my best areas,” he said. “But needless to say, the South Hill is pretty good.”

His selection of 45 different wares go for between $1.50 and $4. The best-seller without a doubt, Gleesing said, is the SpongeBob SquarePants Popsicle Bar, a yellow rectangle with bubblegum eyes that looks similar to the pineapple-dwelling sponge and tastes of fruit punch and cotton candy.

“SpongeBob is always the best. SpongeBob is always a great seller,” Gleesing said, adding the sour Warhead bump-ups are also a hot item.

Lest we leave the traditional treats out in the cold, Gleesing said traditional ice cream sandwiches remain in the top three. Some things never change, and much can be said about the role of ice cream trucks for children in the summer, a tradition that stretches back nearly 90 years.

The BBC reports that it was an accident. New Yorker Thomas Carvellos was delivering some ice cream in 1929 when his truck got a flat tire. Instead of letting his cargo go to waste, “he continued selling the melty confections, which customers seemed to enjoy more than the fully frozen dessert. And thus, it is said, the Carvel soft-serve business was born,” according to the BBC article.

Daniel Neely, an ethnomusicologist and author of “Soft Serve: Charting the Aural Promise of Ice Cream Truck Music,” traces the moment trucks began playing music to 1929 as well, when a California ice cream vendor named Paul Hawkins strapped speakers to the roof of his truck – loaded with ice cream – and blared a Polish folk song called “The Farm Pump.” Thus began a long history of playing loud, old songs that aren’t protected by copyright, triggering a Pavlovian response in young people who lack the ability to control temptation.

“The Entertainer,” a 1902 piano rag tune composed by Scott Joplin, remains among the more popular ice cream truck songs. Another popular melody that will cause the salivary glands to get working is easily recognizable but unnameable in these pages, thanks to its virulently racist name, as well as its hateful lyrics and imagery.

The first mention of ice cream trucks in The Spokesman-Review came in 1963, though the article does suggest the trucks had been operating for years by then. The article reported on Dave Webster Jr. and his “jolly wagons.” The Rogers High School graduate was profiled because of his business selling ice cream out of his “fleet of converted motor scooters,” which “summons youngsters to curbsides all over to purchase ice cream, ‘snow cones’ and frozen novelty foods.”

With 17 employees, Webster pretty much had the Spokane market cornered by 1962, his third year in operation.

Besides Webster’s monopoly, Spokane has a long, sweet history with ice cream. There’s Burton Belknap, who started selling frozen treats out of his Gourmet Ice Cream Shop on Grand Boulevard and 29th Avenue in 1927 and didn’t stop until sometime after 1968, the year a lengthy profile of him appeared in the paper. When he began, there was no such thing as “electrical refrigeration devices,” so he packed the ice cream containers in ice and salt.

And there was Sam Gargano, a Spokane man who invented the electric ice cream scoop in 1955, according to The Spokesman-Review. His idea was inspired by his sister, a waitress, who complained that ice cream was just too hard to scoop.

“It’s simple,” he said. “You just press the button, put the scoop in the ice cream container, and presto! The scoop’s full of ice cream.”

In 1957, the city passed new laws aimed at raising the standards in local dairy production after a bacteriologist with the city health department found bacteria in ice cream samples. The city passed a cottage cheese ordinance and an ice cream ordinance, and order was restored.

In 1958, the Spokane Daily Chronicle wrote an editorial about the booming Spokane ice cream industry: 736,00 pounds of milk was used to manufacture 300,000 gallons of ice cream in May 1958 in Spokane alone. One ice cream-selling operator said sherbet “was a drug on the market” and its sales had gone up year by year since World War I.

In 1964, Spokane’s Komberec & Fiedler Enterprises began producing the Froz-O-Log. The company owned a “complex machine” that pumped out 7-inch tubes of coated ice cream at the rate of “800 dozen per hour.” The novelty treats were good, but it was the machine that was in high demand. The following year, the company began leasing its machine, capable of producing “seven million dozen Froz-O-Logs annually,” to other companies.

Then, of course, there’s Doyle’s Ice Cream store in the West Central Neighborhood, which pretty much hasn’t changed a thing since Art Doyle opened the little shop on a Saturday morning in April 1939.

But none of this gets to that very modern revelation of hearing an eight-bit jingle sound on your block, and Gleesing knows it.

Call it fate or call it business acumen, but when Gleesing saw an ice cream truck for sale at a garage sale in 2016, he knew what he had to do. He bought the truck, complete with vending contracts for Bloomsday and Hoopfest, and the rest is refrigerated history. He was no rookie to the vending business, and had been selling remote control toys at big events for more than a decade. But this was his first foray into frozen treats.

Now, Gleesing’s the big man in town.

“Everybody else has the old mail trucks or big box trucks, but I have the nicest vehicles in town,” Gleesing said of his Dodge Sprinter van, Ford Transit Connect and GO-4, a small vehicle similar to what the city’s parking enforcement officers sometimes use. “They’re newer, nicer and available for parties and events.”