The Ice Cream Man

By John Dunn.


In the queue at Peterson's for the ice cream cones, visitors to Almonte stand out from Old Believers because they talk to each other compulsively, like the newly-converted, about their discovery. They speak as if they've discovered the ice cream palace entirely on their own. Peterson's. In Almonte. Right beside the falls of the river. Expectancy hands from their words, and their eyes light up with a fervid brightness as the queue glides, snake-like, to the palace gate. "On the way to the cottage we always make sure to stop for an ice cream cone at this place." "We do too, and again on the way back to the city." "You never see anything like this in the city." "We've been stopping here for two years now." Old believers stand patiently, rational and composed, listening to these utterances, until one of the Visitors puts wonder beyond comprehension, saying:

"I wonder where they get this name? Peterson's?" "From Louis Peterson" an Old Believer cuts in. "That's Louis sitting over there in front of the gas station. Retired now. That's the ice cream man himself." "That man? How did he ever get started in the ice cream business?" "Chance. Mere Chance." Old Believer states. Disbelief strides across the Vistor's eyes for an instant. Time for doubting the faith passes, for the line snakes forward and it's the moment of decision. Visitor's choice. Chocolate. But chance? Mere Chance?


March 25th, 1919. Chance. That's what it was entirely, just mere chance that Louis even stopped in Almonte that day. He'd never been in the town before.

He'd been a dishwasher for six years in this part of the world, ever since he and his older brother Nick, attracted by the magnetic pull of America, had given up dishwashing in restaurants in Athens in 1913 to come away across the seas to a new world. Louis was little more than a child, but he washed dishes in restaurants in Montreal and News York, in hotels in Brockville and Prescott, and in both hotels and restaurants in Ottawa and Renfrew.

But dishwashing as a profession doesn't change much from one day to another, nor from one city to another, or even one country to another. Still, Louis felt someday he'd like to escape from the soap and steam and get into business on his own.

By Chance it had snowed in the night, and it was still snowing when he left Renfrew on the morning train with a return ticket for Ottawa. He was going to the city to spend a day looking around.

The train began to slow down on the way past the Almonte Flour Mills. Louise saw the river was open below the railway bridge right down to the head of the falls.

A whole crowd of people had gathered at the station in this place, and the excitement obviously held them in a tight grip. Louis brushed the steam off the window by his seat so that he could look out and try to find out what was going on. He couldn't tell. Suddenly he got up, rushed to the front of the car, and stepped off on to the platform just as the conductor called out "Board" and the train continued on its way to Ottawa. Louis elbowed his way to the fringe of the crowd near the Arrivals/Departures board to watch and find out what was going on. The clock on the wall inside the stationmaster's office read ten to ten.

A few moments later he turned his head in the direction of a big stone building on the main street because the clock in the tower had begun to strike ten. Louis turned from this to study the Arrivals/Departures board again and saw that the next train was due at 10:10 from Ottawa. Maybe, he though, that's what the crowd is waiting for.

"Here it comes!" a lady called out. In the same instant the door of the waiting room swung open and people poured on to the platform. Louis looked up the tracks in time to see a big belch of steam rise from the locomotive, leaping suddenly into the air, and in another moment, the sound of the whistle reached him at the station. Another moment, brakes screeched, steam hissed, and the train slowed and stopped.

"There he is," a lady shouted, almost beside herself with joy. "I see Tommy" a youngster cried out delightedly.

Bedlam invaded the platform. Three more of Almonte's soldier's, heroes returning from the wars in Europe, stepped into the throng and were immediately swept up in a whirling, joyful reunion of khaki, feathered bonnets and falling snow.

"Friendly place, this is," Louis said to himself.

His eyes roamed up over the crowd to the engineer in the cab of the locomotive, who smiled widely behind his safety glasses and blue-striped cap. He seemed unconcerned with the big wet sticky snowflakes that landed on the black iron and shiny brass of his engine, each one landing with a little hiss and instantly disappearing in a tiny puff of steam.

"Board". For the second time in twenty minutes the call rang out over the platform. Again a locomotive bell clanged, the whistle tooted, and the train chuffed off, this time for Pakenham, Arnprior, Renfrew, Pembroke, Chalk River. People drifted away until Louis alone of all the throng was left. Then he too set out to walk towards the business part of this place. At the end of the platform he turned around to look back for the name of the station. ALMONTE, The name stood out on a board with black lettering on a white background, hanging under the overhang of the roof at the west end of the station building.

"Nice People, Friendly Place, Almonte." He mused as he walked. The hands of the clock in the tower of the big stone building now stood at ten-thirty. Two horses with buggies stood waiting in front of the building.

Louis moved across the street to get a better look at this big brown stone building. Over one door he read the words "Post Office" and over the other "Inland Revenue" He walked on down the street past a book store, a bake shop, a printing office, a shoemaker's, a clothing store. Near the bottom of the hill, beside a vacant store, stood an imposing structure, the Bank of Montreal. Across the street was another printing office with the name "Almonte Gazette" in old English lettering now in god at the front window. Louis stopped and looked again at the massive oak doors of the bank entrance, enjoying the sight of the heavy, ornamental iron grill Mounted on each half, the letter "B" setting off the one half, the letter "M" the other.

"I guess this bank intends to stay in this place for a while at least", Louis said to himself, unconsciously fingering the forty-two dollars which he had rolled up in his pocket in the Bank of Montreal bills, as large on the whole as ordinary notepaper. He seemed to be surrounded by mills at this place, for he could see the red brick Penman Woollen Mill, and beyond that the Yorkshire Wool Stock mill, and in behind the Gazette office he could detect an iron foundry, and another mill beyond that, and the flour mill where the railway bridge crossed the river, and which he had crossed in the train half an hour or more before.

"Busy place, Friendly, Nice people, Almonte". The words kept recurring in his mind, and he consoled himself with the thought that he was looking around for the day anyway. He kept wondering about that empty store, and that meant he should ask somebody about it. After all, a man could wash dishes in Athens, or Montreal, or Almonte. All the same.

He went back up the street past the post office building and stopped in front of the place next door, a place that seemed to be a combination barber shop and pool room. It wasn't that he needed a hair cut, but barber shops were fine places for finding out what's going on. He walked in.

Jim Hogan, co-proprietor with his brother-in-law, Pat Rooney, watched the stranger enter with interest. Jim was dusting off the Boston pool table, and immediately put the whisk away, for patrons, in Jim's eyes, carried much more interest than dust specks on the green felt.

"G'day. Nice Morning," Jim poured out a little of his day's words to prime the conversation pump, and started round the table to take the balls out of the pockets. He rolled them all to the end of the table and then caged them in the wooden triangle. Removing the cage, he selected a cue from the wall rack, and stood beside the table, elaborately chalking the cue-tip, and surveying the stranger as he did so.

"Care to play a game?" he tossed in Louis's direction. "What you call it?" "Pool, Boston pool. That other table's different. It's snooker. This one here's for Boston pool." "Okay."

Jim's ears stood out like semaphores on the station. This was a sure-fire stranger. Quiet as Indian Joe Baye from the Floating Bridge. But the way this stranger said "okay" it sounded, well foreign-like, as if he didn't know English all that well. The way it came out, it sounded more like Hokay.

"Could be one of those Russians, or Poles, or Doukhobours", Jim thought. But that didn't matter much to Jim and Pat, for their Irish heritage told them any stranger was welcome, and if he could tell them a story or two, they'd be well paid for the time they spent with him, and for the use of the pool table as well.

Jim lined up the cue ball, set down his cue, squinted along the length, and broke.

"Your turn," he said invitingly to Louis. "Okay." "A man of few words" mused Jim. Heck, he wondered if he might have to prime the pump a second time.

Three times more they exchanged shots before Jim deliberately miscued to give the stranger a feeling of equality with the maestro.

"You must be some king of strange in town," he said. "Yup."

Desperate, desperate all together. Was the well dry? The pump was certainly losing it prime. Jim had never had such a time before in all his years of barbering. This stranger sure kept his own counsel. Laconic. Close-lipped.

"Staying in Almonte a while?" Jim asked again. "Could be." Aha. Jim and Pat both grasped at the speculative tone of the stranger's reply. A flank attack might gain them more that the frontal assault they had been using.

"For a stranger you speak the language her some pretty fair, I'd say." Pat ventured. "Where'd you learn English?" he asked.

Jim stood aside during this volley, standing on one foot, chalking his cue again in the deliberate pose, a calculated gesture, designed to put a hex on an opponent. "Learned it in Greece." The visitor announced.

"Greece?" Jim echoed. "So you're Greek. You learned English there?" "Every Greek learns English," the stranger announced in the matter-of-fact one of a man of the wider world of 1919. "Say," he went on, as if he had just found his tongue thawed out, "You gents know a store down the street, one beside the Bank of Montreal? Empty store? You know who owns it?"

The co-proprietors shrugged in unison. "Frank Hogan at the station would likely know." Pat Rooney ventured. "That's a fact: he would for sure," Jim agreed. "You could ask Frank. He's the operator on duty over at the station." "Thanks very much. I'll go see him."

As Louis struggled into his overcoat, Jim decided to make one more pass at the stiff-handled pump. "What did You say your name was?" he threw out.

"Peterson. Louis Peterson." "Peterson." Pat nodded his head and smiled. "I had a notion all Greek names ended in the letter "s", he remarked. "Yahoo. Petropoulos in Greek. Peterson in English. Means same thing. Peterson. Louis Peterson."

"Louis, nice to know you. Come back again."

Looking in the window at the front of the station, Louis saw the agent sitting in the padded captain's chair, listening to the clacking of the telegraph. He had one earphone cocked over his right ear. The big Seth Thomas clock on the wall beside the telegraph desk advertised that the hours and minutes it ticked off were "Railway Time."

Frank Hogan looked up as Louis opened the door of what he read was the Waiting room, and walked in. As he finished taking down the text off a telegram, Frank set down his headset and turned to the stranger.

"Good morning. Can I help you?"

"Morning. At the barber shop they say you might know who owns empty store beside the Bank of Montreal."

"Yes, Mr. Donaldson." "Donaldson." Louis repeated the name. "Know where I find him?"

Frank pointed straight across the tracks to the freight office, "Double house on the street right behind the freight office."

Louis thanked Frank Hogan and started across the tracks. He found Mr. Donaldson at home. "You own empty store beside Bank of Montreal?" "Yes, yes." Mr. Donaldson spoke eagerly.

"You want to rent it?" "Yes, yes, I'll rent it." "How much?" "Twenty-five dollars."

Louis stripped off twenty-five of his forty-two dollars and handed them over.

"You gonna run some kind of business in there?" Mr. Donaldson inquired. "Perhaps." "What kind?" "Small restaurant. Sandwiches, candies, chocolates, peanut brittle, ice cream. Lotsa dishwashing. Get ice cream from Ottawa Dairy. Mabee after while make ice cream too."

"Great idea. Almonte needs that. Good luck."

In the afternoon Louis ventured in through the "M" half of the entrance door of the Bank of Montreal. Mr. Plunkett, he saw, was the manager. Louis asked him for five hundred dollars.

"Five hundred dollars?"

Mr. Plunkett came near exploding. To restore his blood pressure to normal, he swiveled round in his chair, ran both hands along the side of his head to smooth out his hair and stared out the window to contemplate the side wall of the Penman Woollen Mill. It took two minutes before he trusted the pressure. But then he turned back to the bold young immigrant who had asked for the loan of the bank's money.

"Just how do you intend to put the money back if I loan you five hundred dollars?"

"Every day." "Every day?" Mr. Plunkett's pressure started again towards the critical.

"That's the only way I know how." The young immigrant explained.

Another minute passed. The swiveling time leveled off. "All right, I'll give you five hundred dollars." They shook hands. Louis left again by the "M" side of the big front doors.

He was in business in Almonte. He had a store on the main street. He's paid one month's rent. He had bank credit.

March 25th, 1919. Two-thirty in the afternoon. Snowing, just a little.


In the line-up for ice cream cones at Peterson's ice cream plant the Visitors are chattering and marveling at their discovery of this place.

Old Believers in the queue are more subdued. To them 1979 is the Year of the Jubilee, the diamond jubilee of keeping the faith with Louis, the ice cream man.

"Twas mere chance brought him here to Almonte one morning in March 1919.

It was the 25th of the month. By chance, it had snowed in the night.