Schwen shares memories of family-owned business
History will go on display at museum in Blue Earth later this fall
Making ice cream was once a big business in the city of Blue Earth. In fact, Schwen’s Ice Cream & Candy Company was at one time the largest employer in the city.
Walter Schwen, Sr. and his wife Margaret opened The Sweet Shop on the corner of Fifth and Main streets in 1914.
“It was located where the post office now stands,” Rick Schwen, a grandson of Walter and Margaret, says. “Margaret was a behind-the-scenes person who was a key to the success of the business.”
Rick, along with his siblings and cousins, has been working with the Faribault County Historical Society to put together a permanent display on the history of the company. It will be located in the museum in the Etta C. Ross building.
Rick, his brother Bill and sister Kitty, along with her husband Randy Tweden, were at the Faribault County Fair this year sharing their memories while serving free ice cream cones at the Historical Society building.
“We averaged serving 100 ice cream cones per hour,” Rick mentions.
It was also an opportunity to meet people who were familiar with Schwen’s Ice Cream, and hear their stories and memories about the company.
“In addition to Bill and Kitty, I had three other brothers and another sister,” Rick shares. “We lived in a house at 216 First Street. We had a wonderful childhood growing up in Blue Earth.”
Rick says the company was in its infancy when his grandfather’s brother, Herb, decided to invest in the business in 1919.
“He would remain an owner until 1947,” Rick explains. “My grandfather had three children, Walter Jr., who was my father, Maurice and Dorothy. When World War II began, the three siblings dropped what they were doing and joined the war effort. My father and Maurice were in the Navy and Dorothy was in the Red Cross.”
In 1947, after the war was over, Walter Jr., Maurice and Dorothy came back to Blue Earth to be a part of the business, and Herb sold his shares to them.
Walter Sr. did not wait long to make his mark in the ice cream business. In the early years of the operation he came out with what was called “The Chocolate Dream” ice cream bar, an ice cream bar covered with a thin coat of chocolate. Which came first, “The Chocolate Dream” or the “Eskimo Pie,” has also been a topic of discussion over the years.
“What I can tell you is this,” Rick explains. “My son, Nadeem Schwen, who is a patent attorney, did a great deal of research on the matter and found documents showing my grandfather filed a patent for his Chocolate Dream bar in 1917. He would later file a patent interference case against Russell Stover and Christian Nelson (the man given credit for inventing the Eskimo Pie).
“It would have cost a lot of money to go through with the case and my grandfather eventually sold his patent rights to Stover and Nelson in 1921.”
Rick says the company was ahead of its time in many areas.
“My grandfather also had the patent for the ice cream display case,” Rick comments. “His creativity led him to develop an all-natural ice cream and a low sugar ice cream. The company also produced a full line of novelties including ice cream Christmas trees, popsicles, drumsticks and ice cream sandwiches.”
Schwen’s was among the first companies to use liquid corn syrup, according to Rick.
“Using liquid corn syrup made it easier to keep things sterile and also aided in large-scale production,” Rick explains.
Wesley Schwen, a brother to Rick’s grandfather, was on the faculty at the University of Minnesota teaching students about manufacturing ice cream products. He was featured in a picture and article in the Blue Earth Post in 1940, according to Rick.
“The heyday of the company was from the 30s through the mid 60s,” Rick says. “When Schwan’s, which began business in the 50s, started to get bigger it caused some confusion between the two brands.”
It also led to a catchy advertising slogan by Schwen’s, according to Rick.
“Schwen’s Ice Cream, the “E” is for excellence,” Rick says in sharing the slogan. “The ice cream industry became very competitive in the 50s and 60s.”
Rick states there was a key business model difference which gave Schwan’s a competitive edge.
“Schwan’s required their drivers to own and operate their own trucks with no geographical restrictions,” he notes. “The truck drivers were independent businessmen and were not affected as much by big-time competition.”
Meanwhile, Schwen’s would be buying a new fleet of trucks every 10 years.
Schwen’s would eventually sell the business and it would close in 1974. “My dad was the marketing vice president in charge of advertising and Maurice was the president,” Rick comments. “The business was sold to an attorney from the Twin Cities by the name of Patrick Creamer. He took all of the cash out of the business and let it go bankrupt.”
It may have been a sad ending for the business but it does not dim the wonderful memories Rick and his siblings have of their time in Blue Earth.
“All but my two youngest siblings worked at the plant. We had fights in the freezing room with the cousins and were throwing half pints across the room at each other,” Rick recalls. “It was 30 degrees below in there and we were dressed in heavy, insulated suits so that helped soften the blows. And, of course, we got to sample the ice cream when it was fresh, which is when it tasted the best.”
Rick says putting the Schwen’s display together has been a family project involving all of his siblings and cousins.
“We are still interested in hearing from anybody who would be willing to share their story, pictures or other memorabilia,” Rick mentions. “People can contact me at 513-324-2221 or email me at email@example.com
Rick says the exhibit should be ready to open this fall.
“The family thought it would be nice to do something which would tell the full story and fill in the background on the history of the company,” Rick explains.
He still has fond memories of his hometown.
“We were very lucky to have been born and raised in Blue Earth,” Rick comments. “Being raised in a small town has many benefits including learning a good work ethic. You have to behave because everyone knows you but it also gives a person the opportunity to learn a lot of good life lessons at an early age.”