Penn State History Lessons: The Creamery
Yesterday was a big day for Penn State’s very own Berkey Creamery. The place turned the big ol’ 150 years old! Those 150 years are filled with some pretty interesting tales. In its lifetime, the Creamery has moved three times, nearly sunk into the ground, taught thousands of students about the ice-cream making process, and hosted celebrities of all sorts.
We decided to take a look back on some of the Creamery’s most memorable moments. So grab a bowl of Bittersweet Mint, and get ready for the sweetest edition yet of Penn State History Lessons.
Like most things at Penn State in the 19th century, the Creamery started out close to Old Main. The Creamery was a part of the school’s “College Barns,” which was located just behind the famous landmark. That building was established in 1865, and housed a blacksmith shop and a hayloft in addition to the Creamery.
Since that space was pretty crowded, the Creamery moved to its own building in 1889. A state appropriation funded the new place: a one-story building complete with cold storage space, a cream-ripening room, and a workroom. The funding went to the Creamery largely because of a professor named Henry Armsby. Armsby truly believed in the educational purposes of the Creamery, and wanted to upgrade the College’s dairying expertise and instruction. Thus, Penn State’s first Creamery was born.
The Creamery, which was called the State College Creamery at the time, produced small amounts of butter and milk long before it started making ice cream. However, that milk and butter went to an A-List crowd at Penn State. According to one of the Creamery’s old account books from 1899, the Creamery sold milk to the likes of Fred Lewis Pattee, Thornton Osmond, and President Atherton. Those Penn State celebrities only had to pay five cents for a quart of milk, which was delivered by a horse and buggy.
The Creamery was growing, and fast. Though it had a space of its very own, the small one-story building couldn’t keep up with the Creamery’s production. This growing pain was made especially clear when the school began to offer dairy short courses in 1889 (which would evolve into today’s famous ice cream making classes).
So the Creamery would once again need a new place to call home. The Creamery moved into the Patterson building in 1904, which housed the dairy department according to a 1903 Free Lance article.
The Creamery stayed in the Patterson building for about three decades. During these years, the dairy department at Penn State really took off. In 1905, the Department of Dairy Husbandry was created with Professor H. E. VanNorman as department head. The program only grew from there; according to a 1923 Collegian article, 8 Penn Staters graduated with degrees in Dairy Husbandry in 1919. That number leaped to 34 by the year 1922.
The large number of dairy students meant that the Creamery’s production skyrocketed as well. According to that same Collegian article, the Creamery produced 200,000 pounds of butter, 70,000 pounds of cheese, and 10,000 gallons of ice cream in 1922.
Fast forward ten years, and the Creamery was ready to move once again. This time, the destination was the brand new Borland building. Construction on Borland started in 1931, and ended the following year. The Creamery took over an entire wing of the building in 1932.
However, the move to Borland was not entirely smooth. There’s an old Penn State legend (which I had never heard of) that the Creamery caved in 1930s. According to the legend, workmen were trapped under the Creamery’s rubble for years. And while the part about the trapped workers can definitely be ruled out, there is some truth to this urban legend.
As it turns out, the Creamery in Borland was built on top of sinkholes. In a 1998 Collegian article, the Creamery’s manager Tom Palchak explained what happened. The building didn’t actually cave in, though it did sink into the ground. That sinking forced the construction team to restructure the foundation and fill half of the basement with concrete.
Sinkage free, the Creamery stayed in Borland until 2006. During that time, a lot happened. Aside from the hundreds of thousands of gallons of milk, butter, and ice cream the Creamery produced, it also welcomed some pretty awesome guests to Penn State.
In 1999, everyone’s favorite neighbor Mr. Rogers visited the Creamery… Well sort of. His show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, filmed a short segment about how ice cream is made. In a 1999 Collegian article, the show’s associate producer Michael Johnson said the Creamery was the ideal filming location because it was so well known. The episode showed the Creamery making strawberry ice cream. You can even see little Nittany Lions reppin’ Dear Old State on the ice cream containers and employee uniforms.
Perhaps the most famous visit to the Penn State Creamery was three years earlier. Yup, you guessed it. President Clinton visited the Creamery in 1996. Now, you might have heard that famous story about how the President insisted on having two flavors on his cone. Mixing flavors, as you undoubtedly know, is strictly against Creamery rules. But President Clinton remains the only Creamery patron to get his wish: a cone with both Peachy Paterno and Cherry Quist.
But as it turns out, the President actually didn’t demand the multi-flavored treat. According to the university President at the time Graham Spanier, Clinton only asked for Peachy Paterno after Spanier suggested it. Then, POTUS apparently made a comment about Cherry Quist, and a scoop of that flavor was added.
That mistake was never made again, even when Clinton returned to the Creamery in 2000. He stuck with good old Peachy Paterno that time, and bought three gallons to take with him: Vanilla, Peachy Paterno, and Raspberry Fudge Torte. According to a 2000 Collegian article, Clinton joked that the gallons of ice cream served a diplomatic purpose. “You know, I think I’m going to give it to (Israeli) Prime Minister Barak and (Palestinian) Chairman Arafat to put them in a good frame of mind.”
That year, the Creamery received more than just a visit from a former President. In 2000, two Penn State alumni decided to give back to the university by donating three million dollars towards the construction of a new food science building. The alumni, Jeanne and Earl Berkey, both spent at Penn State. Jeanne graduated with a degree in dairy science in 1948, and Earl took the short course at the Creamery.
Though they didn’t meet at the Creamery, Penn State definitely played a part in their love story. Jeanne was interning at a dairy processing plant, which was actually owned by Earl’s family. They got married, and Earl eventually took over the plant. Fifty years later, they were ready to give back.
“Earl and I met in the dairy business,” Jeanne said in a 2000 Penn State press release. “it’s been very good to us, so making this gift seemed the natural thing to do.”
The new food science building took six years to build. During that time the Creamery stayed open in Borland. It was even featured on TLC’s short-lived dating show, A Dating Story. On that particular episode, two Penn Staters named Jill and Andy went on a, ahem, very Central PA blind date (read: they milked cows and rode a tractor). The date ended with cones at the Creamery. According to a 2003 Collegian article, the date didn’t lead to any sort of epic romance. But hey, at least the two got some free ice cream out of the gig!
In August 2006, the Berkey Creamery as we know it today opened its doors. The new building featured an expanded seating area, and more cash registers to help with crowd control. According to a 2006 Collegian article, the new improvements were met with some disappointment from the students. The new location, though close to East, meant a longer walk from the central part of campus. But overall, most people were pleased with the Creamery’s new digs. In that same Collegian article, Tom Palchak said sales were 12 percent higher at the new location than in 2005.
In its 150 years, the Creamery has been through a lot. But one thing hasn’t really changed through all that time: the ice cream. It sounds silly, that a sweet frozen dessert is such an important part of a university’s history. But I think former OPP manager Paul Ruskin said it best. In that 2006 Collegian article, Ruskin said “The history is embedded in the ice cream itself.”
So think about that the next time you visit the Creamery. Remember the 150 years of ice cream classes, presidential flavor combinations, delivery horse and buggies, and dairy cows grazing out in the school’s pastures. It’ll make the ice cream that much more delicious.
Featured image: Penn State University Archives