Living fossils, childhood treats, and the joy of pulling off the highway
I have a fun little piece coming out soon on ice cream stands. Usually I’d quote the piece after it goes up, but this time I’ll quote from it before it goes up:
When I’m out on small New Jersey roads—sometimes Virginia roads, but I don’t see them there as often—I always take an extra second to look at ice cream stands. You know the place: a basic, boxy building with a little awning, an ornamented, angular front, one or two counters to order, and more often than not no inside seating or even customer entrance.
The staff are usually high-schoolers; maybe retirees. The prices, like everything, have creeped up, but they’re still wallet-friendly. They’re refreshingly un-trendy, too. Nobody manhandles your ice cream on a frozen rock.
Jimmy’s Ice Cream, Milford, New Jersey
When I was a kid, after my parents voted, we’d sometimes go out for ice cream. They think we only did that once or twice; I remember it as a ritual, to the point that to this day I still associate Election Day with going out for ice cream, and both of them with America. It’s not political, it’s civic. Something it feels like we’re forgetting.
Gronsky’s Milk House, High Bridge, New Jersey
The Polar Cub, Whitehouse Station, New Jersey
The Polar Cub is the one I remember going to after voting.
In the piece I will note this as well:
Sometimes new ice cream stands in this classic pattern—no indoor seating, low-key menu, small building—open up….
These new ones can have a deliberate, self-conscious feel to them, sort of like the quirky (and frequently thematic and unsettling) retro-style videogames made today. They’re homages. But some get the vibe just right. It’s an infrequent thing to start fresh these days, and I love to see it.
Here’s one of the new ones, not far from my parents’ house. I haven’t gotten to trying the ice cream yet, but I like the way it looks. The building is, if I recall, the old office from a since-demolished motel. (Not too far down U.S. 202, there’s one of only two surviving motels on the stretch, with a decades-vacant pancake house next door. The building must be a wreck by now, but it sure would make a neat diner and ice cream joint.)
Thee Ice Cream Parlor, Flemington, New Jersey
Cream King, Pennington, New Jersey
We used to stop at Cream King all the time coming home from daytrips in Philadelphia. Sometimes we’d just go in for a stroll and dinner in Chinatown, and a cone on the way home.
That was long before social media and Instagram. It’s an interesting thing that most of my favorite places, the places that hold the most meaning, don’t photograph well in that context. The Cream King is so old there’s an old wood sign behind the current plastic sign (which has been there as long as I can remember!)
Wright’s Dairy-Rite, Staunton, Virginia
Johnny Mac’s NC Style BBQ, Alexandria, Virginia
These places hail from the same era, and fall into the same general pattern, as little family-owned, one-story motels, which can have as few as 10 or 20 rooms. Once you stop and think about this stuff, it’s weird. I frequently think about this letter from a reader, on driving a Buick Roadmaster every day:
The interesting thing about driving a car from 30 years ago built to plans from 50 years ago is that you’re inhabiting the very different assumptions made by a culture very similar to yours….Sometimes I feel like I’m using alien technology.
I had a similar thought all the way back in 2017—the first “urbanism” piece I ever wrote—thinking about whether old motels merited historic preservation. Actually, it was that rare survivor on U.S. 202!
They are not just old buildings; they are little pieces of a way of life that has been superseded, but should not be forgotten. It seems silly, but it might also be valuable, to meditate on how a family of five or six and their dog could fit happily into a motel room smaller than an average New York City apartment. Old buildings can teach us humility.
31 South, Lebanon, New Jersey
I am always struck by how small these old, early, car-oriented buildings feel. New ones frequently have a moat of landscaping or parking ringing them. Their scale is imposing, but often without a sense of grandeur. Here’s an old motel on U.S. 50 in Fairfax, Virginia (it’s actually a remnant of a much larger motel structure that has been retrofitted into a storefront!) Look at how it just sort of fits into the landscape. Human-scale suburbia.
The very different assumptions made by a culture very similar to yours.
Spooky. It almost makes me shiver, but I’m still getting an ice cream cone.
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