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Justin Trubey and the Ice Cream Trade

Grace Shackman

His Main Street parlors and westside factory were summer favorites

In the days before home refrigeration, ice cream was a rare delicacy. Available at only a few places in town, it was usually consumed right where it was made, either at an ice cream parlor or at summertime ice cream socials. "We didn't have ice cream much, recalls senior citizen Florence Haas. "It was a treat for us when we were kids."

When Ann Arbor's senior citizens were children, an important purveyor of this treat was Justin Trubey. He was proprietor of Trubey's Confectionary, first at 116 South Main (1909-1916) and then at 218 South Main (1917-1923), and later owned the wholesale Trubey Ice Cream Co., 438 Third Street (1923-1932).

Justin and Sarah Trubey moved to Ann Arbor in 1909, probably to be near good medical care, since their son, Harold, was sickly as a child. They came from Jewell, Ohio, where Justin had run a grocery store and Sarah had been postmistress. Trubey's brother, Barevius Trubey, owned a creamery in nearby Sherwood, which was most likely where Trubey learned to make ice cream.

Trubey took over an existing ice cream parlor on Main Street. Assisted by his wife and son, he made ice cream and candy on the premises and also served light lunches. At the time, ice cream was steadily gaining in popularity. Although known to Europeans since Marco Polo brought a sherbet recipe home from the Far East in the thirteenth century, ice cream was rarely consumed by the general population until the middle of the nineteenth century. That was when a string of inventions—first the hand-cranked ice cream freezer, and later electricity and commercial refrigeration units—made ice cream quicker and cheaper to produce.

As it became more available, various methods of serving ice cream were devised. Most innovations started as the solution to a problem. In 1880 the ice cream soda was invented by Detroit's Fred Sanders when he substituted ice cream for plain cream in a carbonated drink because his cream supply had turned sour. The sundae followed in 1890 as a replacement for sodas, which some responsible citizens considered too stimulating for Sunday consumption. The ice cream cone surfaced at the 1904 World's Fair, when an ice cream vendor ran out of bowls and began wrapping the ice cream in waffles.

Photograph of Trubeys at their counters in the brightly decorated shop

Justin Trubey (foreground) and his son and daughter-in-law, Harold and Elsa Trubey, in Trubey's Confectionary, 116 South Main Street, 1910.

Trubey's ice cream parlor met all these tastes, selling cones, sodas, and sundaes as well as plain ice cream. Its main competitor was the Sugar Bowl restaurant across the street. The Sugar Bowl was fancier and sold a larger variety of food, but many of Trubey's customers, especially children, felt more comfortable in the simpler establishment. According to Edith Kempf, "Trubey's was not fancy, but it was thought to be very clean. And the ice cream was very good."

Freida Saxton remembers that she "lived for" visits to Trubey's. On Sunday afternoons her dad would give her a dime. Then, accompanied by girlfriends, she would walk to Trubey's from her family's home on First Street and order a bowl of tutti-frutti ice cream—a multi-colored, multi-flavored concoction of vanilla ice cream and candied fruit.

After fourteen years of operating the ice cream parlor, Trubey decided to concentrate on the manufacturing end. In 1923 he moved his equipment to a factory he had built behind his home at 438 Third Street. The confectionary on Main was taken over by Mack and Co., the department store next door, who used the space to expand their dry goods department.

Trubey's ice cream factory was a very primitive operation by today's standards. Its equipment consisted of two ice cream machines and a sink. The only employees were Trubey and his son, Harold, who by that time had married Elsa Aprill, an employee of the ice cream parlor.

Harold Trubey's son, Bob Trubey, remembers watching his father and grandfather make the ice cream. He says they used a liquid mix to which cream, sugar, and flavoring were added. Vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate were the mainstays, although in later years they experimented with more exotic flavors like pistachio. After the ice cream was made, it was placed in the cold storage room, which the Trubeys had insulated with 4-inch-thick cork. Ammonia coolant was piped through coils in the room from a compressor in the basement. An office in front also served as a retail outlet, mainly for neighbors.

Harold Trubey's other son, Dorwin Trubey, remembers that after classes got out at Bach School on Fourth Street, groups of his classmates would sometimes follow him over to his grandfather's factory two blocks away. Justin Trubey would welcome the young delegations by giving each child a freshly made "smile," today called a Dixie cup.

Most of Trubey's ice cream was sold wholesale. Using Dodge trucks, which he said always started best, he delivered ice cream all around town, to stores and restaurants, sororities and fraternities, traveling as far afield as Groomes Beach at Whitmore Lake. The trucks weren't refrigerated, so the ice cream was packaged in heavy 5-gallon galvanized metal containers placed inside a wooden crate and surrounded by ice with rock salt sprinkled on top.

In 1932 Trubey's merged with McDonalds Ice Cream, a Flint firm with a branch on Main Street near the stadium. Two years later, Justin Trubey died of cancer, but Harold continued with McDonalds for the rest of his working life. The Trubey factory building continued to be used, either for small manufacturing operations or for storage.

In 1978, when John and Elsa Stafford bought the building and remodeled it, they found the 4-inch cork insulation in the cold storage room still intact and one of the walk-in coolers still there—remnants of the building's original use.

Summertime Ice Cream Socials
In the early years of the century, ice cream socials were eagerly anticipated by children seeking to supplement their meager ice cream consumption. Before she was old enough to go to ice cream parlors, Bertha Walker remembered that her main source of ice cream was ice cream socials held at the German Park off Madison, near her family’s home on Sixth Street. Her dad gave each of the kids in the family a nickel, and they would line up to buy the confection at a shanty set up for the purpose. They found the ice cream quite satisfactory, although vanilla vas usually the only choice.

Frieda Saxton remembered going to wonderful raspberry socials out Dexter Road, just past Maple. The annual event was a fundraiser for the Masons, hosted by a Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, raspberry growers who were very active in the group. Eating fresh raspberries over ice cream was a treat she looked forward to all year.

Edith Kempf remembered that Ann Arbor churches did not host ice cream socials, but left that activity for the country churches. Her favorite was one that is still going, as of this writing, at Bethel United Church of Christ, near Manchester.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The Trubey ice cream factory was actually an old horse barn with a cinderblock addition. The area closest to the street was sectioned off for an office, and the back was made into a walk-in freezer room, with the rest of the cinderblock area used for production. The second story was added by present owners John and Elsa Stafford, who now use it as a carpentry shop.

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Grace Shackman