CEDAR RAPIDS — Mark Stoffer Hunter remembers walking up to the Dairy Queen on First Avenue Northeast in Cedar Rapids as a young boy.
It was the late 1960s and he was greeted by a glowing neon curly cone sign.
“Ive been going there since I was two or three years old ...” he said, explaining that his grandparents lived only a block or so away, making it easy to walk together.
“Of course, at the time, I was very small,” he said. “I just remember looking up at the counter and the ice cream seeming so far out of reach.”
On July 17, the First Avenue Dairy Queen — the first DQ to come to Cedar Rapids and one of the earliest to open in the nation — turns 70. It opened in 1947, just seven years after the first ever DQ, and has been owned by the same family for three generations.
“It’s a landmark in Cedar Rapids,” said Stoffer Hunter, 52, historian with The History Center. “First Avenue wouldn’t be First Avenue if you didn’t drive by and see people standing in line at the Dairy Queen.”
It’s been a “real tradition,” he added.
Dairy Queen was started in 1938 by Sherb Noble, a Clemons native. Inspired by ice cream maker J.F. McCullough, who had been experimenting with soft serve ice cream at a time when hard, hand-packed ice cream was popular, Noble suggested they test the market for soft-serve at his shop in Kankakee, Ill., with a 10-cent “all you can eat” soft-serve ice cream sale.
It was a huge success. They served more than 1,600 servings in less than two hours, according to a written history by Noble.
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In 1940, Noble opened his first Dairy Queen store in Joliet, Ill., and hired Jim and Grace Elliot, who had been operating their own ice cream shop in Cedar Rapids.
By 1947, Elliot acquired the rights to open the First Avenue Dairy Queen in Cedar Rapids and encouraged his sister, Dorothy Herrington, to buy and run it with her husband, Harold “Gene” Herrington.
The franchise location has remained in the family ever since.
In 1972, the Herringtons’ daughter, Sally Stendel, took over. And in 1991, it was passed to Stendel’s only daughter, Jill Muckler, who has worked at the same Dairy Queen since she was 10 years old. Muckler opened a second location in Mount Vernon in 1997 and continues to operate both shops. Stendel remains the territory operator of all 11 Linn County DQs.
The First Avenue store remains one of two walk-up, treat-only shops in the county — the other on 16th Street NE also is nearing its 70th anniversary.
“People like the old-school aspect (of the walk up),” Stendel said. “It’s kind of a throw back to the early days.”
“The heritage of it is really special to a lot of people,” agreed Courtney Avis, manager of the First Avenue DQ.
“I have a lot of people say they were here on opening day.”
Back then, the menu was limited to cones, sundaes and take-home pints and quarts. There were no Dilly Bars, floats, blizzards, Treatzza Pizzas or ice cream cakes. Cones were just five cents, compared to close to $2 and up today.
While the service, friendliness and quality of the product has remained the same over the years, according to Muckler, the menu has expanded exponentially, cramping the tiny 540-square-foot building.
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Many of the Dairy Queens have added food to their menus, but Stendel said her father would likely “roll over in his grave” if they added food.
“He didn’t like walking up to stores and smelling grease,” she explained.
He was a “everything-has-its-place” kind of guy who ran a very tight ship, she added, laughing as she recalled a memory when her mother tried to hand her a banana split and it instead landed in a splat on the floor. Her dad was livid.
She and her mom cracked up.
As they approach the 70th anniversary, the family is feeling nostalgic and prideful.
The company is also planning a special promotion to celebrate seven decades in business. On Monday, July 17, all Linn County Dairy Queen locations are offering small cones for 70 cents.
“I doubt mom and dad would have ever envisioned this building being here and family still working in it,” Stendel said. “It’s hard work. But a lot of fun, too.”
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If You Go
What: Dairy Queen
Where: 3304 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Phone: (319) 363-7131
Details: On Monday, July 17, in honor of its 70th anniversary, all 11 Cedar Rapids DQ locations are offering small cones for 70 cents.