I. Ben Miller - making ice cream history in Southeast Missouri

Thursday, July 18, 2002

Dallas Niswonger has an old "I. Ben Miller" porcelain sign.

Niswonger, a collector of Cape Girardeau memorabilia, also has a milk bottle and an ice cream carton from Miller's ice cream emporium.

Gail Crites has a couple of I. Ben Miller milk bottles herself.

I. Ben Miller was a big name in ice cream locally from 1893 through 1928, until he sold his ice cream plant to Midwest Dairy Products Corp.

Dora Morgan of Zalma remembers the I. Ben Miller ice cream parlor.

"I worked at the parlor while I was going to school," said Morgan. "The ice cream was really good."

Miller had the first ice cream plant utilizing electricity between St. Louis and Memphis, and delivered ice cream daily to an area stretching from 40 miles south of St. Louis to 40 miles north of Memphis.

Miller covered his ice cream and milk production. That included the work of Miller's Lila Drew Dairy Farm, located on North Sprigg Street. The farm was named for his daughters, Clara Drew Miller and Lila Miller.

Miller, a native of Cape Girardeau County, attended Normal School and passed his pharmacy Board exam at Kansas City.

He worked three years as a drug clerk before opening his own Main Street Drug Store, where he added a soda fountain in 1894.

Ice cream made with a single hand-turned freezer was popular, and Miller added more freezers and flavors over time. Between 1890 and 1911, he turned his enterprise from a single shop to a productive factory, becoming an electric-powered ice cream plant.

Miller's ice cream factory was located on Water Street, with offices on Main Street. Miller later moved his factory to Spanish Street.

A tiny park

Murtaugh Park, a small park in downtown Cape Girardeau, is nestled into a small parkway between Main Street and Aquamsi Street in front of old St. Vincent's Church.

The park was named for the Rev. James A. Murtaugh, a Vincentian priest who was sent to Cape Girardeau in 1910 to become assistant pastor and treasurer of St. Vincent's College. He became head of St. Vincent's College in 1911.

Murtaugh also became one of the city's leading boosters and civic leaders.

Murtaugh died Nov. 9, 1916. The park was dedicated in Murtaugh's memory on Oct. 14, 1919.

Musician's debut

Jerry Ford has been playing the trumpet for half a century. The Jerry Ford Orchestra is a musical institution that has entertained tens of thousands of dancers and toe-tappers throughout the region.

But few people know that Ford's first trumpet performance was at the old Colony Club in Southern Illinois. The year was 1952. Ford was a fifth grader at Lorimier School.

"People sometimes ask me if I get nervous before, or during, a performance," Ford said. "I tell them no."

The reason? Ford's first public appearance.

Harry Ranch, also a trumpeter, played show rooms in Las Vegas and Florida as well as the Colony Club. He and his family moved to Cape Girardeau in 1952. Shortly after settling here, Ranch hosted a birthday party for his daughter, a fifth grader. One of the party guests was Jerry Ford.

After birthday festivities, Ranch treated the young party guests to dinner at the Colony Club, where the Ranch Band would perform later that night.

As the birthday dinner ended, people started arriving for the entertainment. Then Harry Ranch made an announcement.

He announced that one of his daughter's little friends was going to perform a trumpet solo with the band.

Ford was ready. He got out his trumpet, put his music on the stand and stood up.

"Jerry deserves a special introduction," Ranch said.

He looked Ford over.

"Jerry, you're not dressed for the occasion," he said.

Ranch got a red mop wig and placed it on Ford's head.

The band played an introduction - and stopped.

Ranch appeared again, this time with a tie. Not just any tie, Ford said. It was a six-foot long clown tie.

The band started playing again, then stopped. Ranch added a floppy-eared felt hat to Ford's on-stage attire.

"By that time, the crowd was rolling in the aisles," Ford said. "I thought, 'OK, I have a wig, a tie and a hat. This time we're going to really be playing.'"

Ford was wrong.

"Ranch brought out one more thing - a potty - and set it down beside me 'just in case,'" he said.

After that, the band started playing "Tenderly," and Ford had his debut performance. "That was my introduction into the music profession," said Ford. "After that, I can take anything."

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