Ice Cream Memories


President, White County Historical Society, 1998-2000

Albert Yarnell remembers the days before home freezers when every town of any size in Arkansas had its own ice cream plant. And July 4 was the ice cream makers’ biggest day of the year.

The chairman of Arkansas’ only remaining ice cream company has worked at Yarnell Ice Cream Company in Searcy since his father started it in 1932 and still comes to work every day.

He recalls in the beginning the Yarnell truck was refrigerated with ice and salt just like homemade ice cream in a hand freezer today. Each morning, the driver had to chip ice by hand, then climb to the top of his truck and dump it and bags of salt into the sides to keep it cold.

“If you’ll look closely at the trucks in the early photographs, you may note the railing around the top of the truck," Yarnell says. "This was to keep the men from falling off while they were dumping in more ice and salt. On a long truck route, the men had to stop at ice houses in each town to add more ice and drain off the water.”

When Ray Yarnell began the company in 1932, his wife Hallie was bookkeeper and his son Albert made deliveries on his bicycle.

"In these times, remember, people didn’t keep ice cream at home," Yarnell recalls. "Ice cream had one big day a year - the Fourth of July. Since rural communities had no electricity, country stores were not able to keep ice cream on hand. So the big Independence Day picnic was one of the few occasions in the year when a child could buy all the ice cream he or she could eat.

"Thirty or forty small concession stands usually dotted the picnic grounds and it was our responsibility to keep their ice cream packed in five-gallon tubs of ice and salt. This job required the efforts of three or four men, and after working at one of these picnics, the men would have hands so cold and sore from handling the ice and salt they could hardly close them. Yarnell’s sometimes sold as much as 400 to 600 gallons at a picnic. In fact, during the Great Depression ice cream was an escape for a lot of people - like going to the movies was."

Albert recalls the time he and his father were were on the way to a rural community to call on a booth operator. Their vehicle became stuck in the mud in the road, so Ray Yarnell walked up to a farmhouse, found no one at home, then proceeded to get a pair of mules out of the barn, hitch them up and pull themselves out of the mud. The mules were back in the barn and the Yarnells sitting on the porch when the farmer finally arrived. Business was much simpler in those days.

"For the stores that carried ice cream, our salesmen had to repack it when they delivered fresh ice cream each day. Of course, when a customer bought some to take home, the stores had to pack it again for the customer. But it was eaten as soon as they got it home."

Toward the end of the 1930s, Yarnell’s bought its first electrically refrigerated truck . It held 650 gallons and Ray Yarnell wondered if he’d ever be able to sell so much ice cream. Today, a typical Yarnell route truck holds more than 2,000 gallons.

Over the years, the impact of national brands, rising butterfat costs and other factors have caused the community ice cream companies of Arkansas to slowly disappear. Only Yarnell’s is left. After all these years, the company is still cranking.