Torn-Down Tuesday: Is Buffalo home of the ice cream sundae?

By Steve Cichon

One fact is not in doubt — Buffalo’s first ice cream soda fountain was opened at the Stoddart Bros. Drug Store at 84 Seneca St., and the Stoddart brothers built what was said to be the country’s largest drug store based on sales at the ice cream counter.

But seemingly forgotten in the annals of Buffalo myth and lore was the claim made by members of the Stoddart family through the years that the first ice cream sundae was served at the Stoddart Bros. store on Seneca near Ellicott, on a spot that is now somewhere between second base and center field at Coca-Cola Field.

So along with the chicken wing, should Buffalo be claiming the ice cream sundae? While no definitive proof exists, the long-dormant Buffalo claim seems at least as strong as several of the other cities that have staked their civic pride on ice cream, fruit sauce, whipped cream and a cherry on top.

The Stoddart brothers, Charles and Thomas, were born in Scotland and spent time in Canada before landing in Buffalo. They worked in another Buffalo drug store for four years before opening their own Stoddart Bros. store in 1876.

Buffalo Evening News, 1946

Buffalo Evening News, 1946

Charles Stoddart, the younger brother, had his hand firmly on the helm of the business, working most days late into the evening. Thomas Stoddart was a more familiar figure in Buffalo business and civic life, and he served as a city councilman as well as several terms as the president of the New York State Pharmaceutical Association.

After 24 years wildly successful years at 84 Seneca — including having opened Buffalo’s first soda fountain — the brothers expanded in 1900, buying the buildings next door at 86 and 88 Seneca St.

They invested $20,000 in building updates designed by Louise Bethune, the Buffalo woman who was also America’s first female architect. The new store boasted 50,000 square feet of space over four floors, and 60 people worked the 1,000 feet of showcases on those floors.

Written up as “America’s largest drug store” in several national trade publications, the new store featured a $5,000 soda bar as its crown jewel. The American Soda Fountain Co. piece had seating for 75 with as many as 12 fountains running at any given time, serving the 250 stools that filled along the counter space of a large part of the main shop floor.

The new facility also allowed Stoddart Bros. to make its own ice cream in a special plant in the basement. Up to 100 gallons could have been on hand at any given time. The building also had facilities for the manufacture of perfumes as well as medical appliances and prosthetics.

Around 1903, Stoddart Bros. was doing a daily soda business of $200 — not bad, considering most sodas were a nickel.  More than just a sweet treat, many believed in the health benefits of ice cream sodas — especially during the heat of the summer. Stoddart’s was Buffalo’s most popular place to escape from the heat — cooling fans and a drink of cold ice cream and soda water was about as cool as anyone could expect.

Two views of the Stoddart Bros. soda fountain, c.1902. Buffalo Stories archives

Two views of the Stoddart Bros. soda fountain, c.1902. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The original three-storefront Stoddart Bros. building burned in a spectacular blaze in 1919. Flames of every color shot from the laboratory where prescriptions were crafted.

The store reopened almost immediately down the street, but it never fully recovered its place as America’s largest drug store. Through the 1920s and 1930s, Stoddart Bros. had several stores throughout the city, but when Thomas Stoddart’s son decided to retire in 1946, the 70-year-old family business closed permanently.

The news of the closure made headlines around the country after The News published a front-page story with a claim from John Stoddart that his uncle Charles was the creator of the ice cream sundae.

“About 50 years ago, the store ran out of soda water one Sunday morning and my uncle, Charles Stoddart, suggested that the clerk serve two scoops of ice cream with syrup on top. It was hurriedly named a ‘sundae’ and immediately (was) very popular,” said John Stoddart in 1946.

The Gloversville Morning Herald was one of many newspapers around the country to carry the story with Buffalos claim as the home of the ice cream sundae.

The Gloversville Morning Herald was one of many newspapers around the country to carry the story with Buffalo’s claim as the home of the ice cream sundae.

Twenty-five years later, United Press International distributed a story that went into greater detail with the founder’s son, then 84.

“”That’s what I was told,” John Stoddart told the UPI in 1976 about his sundae story. “It was in the summertime around the turn of the century.”

He said the gas to make the soda ran out on a hot Sunday at the busy counter. “They called my uncle and he told the clerk to give them scoops of ice cream and syrup, or strawberry preserves, without the soda,” Stoddart said.

The new dish, Stoddart said, was called a “Sunday” and advertised as such, becoming popular very quickly.  “An outfit in Rochester sold fountain supplies … and a few years later the Rochester firm publicized the Stoddart Brothers drugstore as the ‘birthplace of the sundae.’ ”

And the spelling change? Stoddart said: “I suppose it looked better in the ads.”

There are a handful of problems with Stoddart’s story.

First, most of the claims of “the first sundae” date to the 1880s or early 1890s. So any claim would have to be earlier than “the turn of the century.” There were also at least two big players in soda bar supplies in Rochester: Alick G. Richardson’s Richardson Corp. and J. Hungerford Smith, which was the exclusive Orangeade seller at the Pan-American Exposition. An extensive search came up with plenty of ads for both businesses’ soda bar and sundae supplies, but nothing about Stoddart Bros. That’s not to say one doesn’t exist, but it didn’t come up in hundreds of reviewed ads.

Stoddart Bros. did regular, nearly daily advertising through the 1880s and 1890s, and the wholesomeness of their “fresh Holstein cream” ice cream, cleanliness and cooling fans are usually made the biggest selling points — without mention of sundaes by name. The company also received quite a bit of publicity as “America’s largest drug store.” The Buffalo claim to the sundae was never made in any of those national news stories.

Stoddart Bros. advertising, c. 1888-90

Stoddart Bros. advertising, c. 1888-90

The first time any mention of the Stoddart sundae story can be found in Buffalo papers is the 1946 Buffalo Evening News article announcing the store’s closure, more than half a century after the event would have happened. This combined with the weak “naming of the sundae” story leaves a bit of a melted drippy mess — but other sundae stories have low melting points as well.

Buffalo Evening News, 1946

Buffalo Evening News, 1946

In gathering up the stories of “the birth of the ice cream sundae,” it might be that no single location can say they first served the exact treat we’d order at a Dairy Queen today. But clearly, several different places — Buffalo included — can lay claim to different parts of the evolution of the modern ice cream sundae.

Two Rivers, Wisc., is the home of Edward Berners; legend says he was the first to drizzle chocolate syrup over ice cream in 1881 (or 1899, depending on which account you believe.).

According to the Wisconsin legend, the spelling of “sundae” might be traced back to a salesman selling the familiar canoe-shaped dishes as “Sundae dishes,” perhaps even unaware that he’d misspelled the day of the week.

Hard proof is found on the pages of the Ithaca (N.Y.) Daily Herald in 1892 that druggist Chester Platt was serving up a dish called “Strawberry Sunday.” It’s the first documented use of the name “Sunday” being used for a treat served at a soda bar.

Where does Buffalo’s Stoddart Bros. contribution fit in?

Found in the pages of The Buffalo Evening News and the Buffalo Courier are ads for Stoddart’s adding both fruit syrup and whipped cream to ice cream as early as 1889, years before other “fruit sundae” claimants. This concrete black-and-white proof is good enough to at least mention Buffalo as one of the potential homes of the sundae.

1889 advertisements show that Stoddart Bros. in Buffalo was serving up ice cream garnished with elements of a modern sundae, a few years before other claimants to the "original ice cream sundae" title. Buffalo Stories archives

1889 advertisements show that Stoddart Bros. in Buffalo was serving up ice cream garnished with elements of a modern sundae, a few years before other claimants to the “original ice cream sundae” title. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Stoddart Bros. did have Buffalo’s first soda bar. They did, in the 1880s, serve ice cream with fruit syrup and whipped cream, which sounds a lot like a sundae — even if they didn’t call it that.

The secondhand retelling of an old family tale by an 84-year-old man may have had some factual errors, but refitted with the actual facts, it seems very much like Buffalo could be the home of the ice cream sundae.

Mr. & Mrs. James Scurr of Seneca Street, South Buffalo

By Steve Cichon

Buffalo, NY- I was three years old when Great-Grandpa Scurr died– But I have two distinct memories of him.

My aunt set me this great photo of my great grandparents... Mr. & Mrs. James Scurr of Seneca Street. He was born in North Shields, Tynemouth, England, and she was born Margaret Doyle in Coatbridge, Scotland... shortly after her family moved from Banbridge, Down, Ireland.
My aunt set me this great photo of my great grandparents… Mr. & Mrs. James Scurr of Seneca Street. He was born in North Shields, Tynemouth, England, and she was born Margaret Doyle in Coatbridge, Scotland… shortly after her family moved from Banbridge, Down, Ireland.

One, I was afraid walking up a dark staircase to his apartment at the corner of Seneca & Fairview, and however that fear manifest itself… (screaming or crying or whatever) made Grandpa Scurr laugh, as he was backlit and spooky, standing in the doorway at the top of the staircase. It was the same laugh that his daughter, my Grandma Cichon, had. It’s probably because of him that I laugh when little babies cry. Their liveliness brings me joy, just like it did him.

My only other memory of him, is visiting him in the hospital. I can even remember the shirt I was wearing… It was purplish-blue with a giant grasshopper on it. He had a tube in his nose, which kind of scared me, but his smile made me feel safe. He reached over and patted my hand. My dad was great about sneaking us kids into the hospital… Knowing that seeing little twerps is usually as good as any medicine they can feed you.

I was 11 or 12 when Grandma Scurr died… But I have no memories of her. She suffered from dementia for many years, and I know my dad had a hard time dealing with that– this woman who he loved so deeply was gone in mind as her body feebly lived on. I don’t think I ever went to visit her. I wish dad had taken us, and I wish I had the memory of making her smile.

Torn-Down Tuesday: The Danahy Meat Packing Co. in the 1890s

By Steve Cichon

As one of America’s livestock trading centers in the late 1880s, Buffalo was also packed with meat packers. The areas around the Buffalo Stockyards and each of Buffalo’s public markets (Washington/Chippewa, Elk, Broadway, and Clinton/Bailey) had more than an average number of meat-packing businesses.

Buffalo News archives

The caption written on the reverse of this photo says that it was taken in the yards of Danahy Packing Co. at Seneca and Smith streets in 1870.

In 1894, Danahy built a two-story stable on Metcalfe at Clinton. The original wooden structure burned and was rebuilt in 1898. Alderman James Franklin was there for the big celebration and grand re-opening, and had the honor of “killing the first porker” at the “pig sticking party.”

The written account of the slaughter was quite graphic. Alderman Franklin discarded his coat, vest, shirt, collar, tie and cuffs, rolled up his pant legs, and slipped into an oilskin apron. He watched as the 300-pound hog was hoisted up by its hind legs. “Then outshot the aldermanic arm, and the keen blade sunk into the pig’s throat.”

“Don’t cheer, boys,” Franklin said to those gathered after wielding the knife, “the poor devil is dying.”

A large contingent of VIPs then retired from the “killing room” to a “well-prepared luncheon.”

“Long tables were covered with celery, radishes, sliced ham and bread, and kegs of cold beer and cases of pop were handy in case anybody should by chance be overtaken by thirst.”

(As an entirely unrelated aside, it’s interesting to note that the people of Buffalo have referred to carbonated beverages as “pop” and not “soda” since at least 1898.)

Both former locations of Danahy Packing are now a vacant lot.

What It Looked Like Wednesday: Three nights of drinking in South Buffalo, 1977

By Steve Cichon

In the year of the big blizzard, the iconic Buffalo News tavern and music critic Dale Anderson counted 17 bars on Seneca Street between Elk Street and the city line.

Buffalo Stories archives/Steve Cichon collection

He visited or at least talked about 10 different gin mills along Seneca Street and Abbott Road, including four within a block of where this photo was snapped at Seneca and Cazenovia streets. Here are a few of the places talked about, with a more current status:

  • Terry & Wilbur’s — 1944 Seneca St. at Mineral Springs. Across Seneca Street from Rite-Aid in the large building on the corner.
  • JP McMurphy’s — 2126 Seneca St. Formerly Maloney’s — an old railroad man bar. Recently D-Bird’s and Brandy’s Pub.
  • Early Times — 2134 Seneca St. Now the Blackthorn Pub.
  • Falcon Eddie’s — formerly Jack & Ester’s Schuper House—2143 Seneca St. Now the site of Dollar General. (I also have to mention that my great-grandparents lived upstairs.)
  • The Sky Room — on the top floor of the old Shea’s Seneca building. You’d drive into it if you drove straight through the Cazenovia Street intersection.
  • Fibber Magee’s — 2340 Seneca St. Recently Mr. Sports Bar, near Duerstein.
  • Klavoon’s — 81 Abbott Road, currently Griffin’s Irish Bar
  • Stankey’s Café — 107 Abbott Road, now Jordan’s Ale House
  • Smitty’s — 474 Abbott Road, now Doc Sullivan’s. Smitty’s was famous for the unique tangy wing recipe created by Carol O’Neill at the bar. You can still order Smitty-style wings at Doc’s and many other South Buffalo taverns.

Now armed with a better sense of where these places were, here’s Dale’s original tale of three nights of drinking in South Buffalo 39 years ago.

Lately not so much– but the Top Ten reasons I’ll love Dave forever….

By Steve Cichon | | @stevebuffalo

My intense love affair with David Letterman started in our basement family room in front of the huge RCA console TV my dad bought at FWS in the Como Park Mall.

The volume was on the lowest possible setting with sound still coming out. This was the 80’s, and the set had fancy new stereo sound. I turned the balance to the right, and pressed my ear up to the single speaker that still had sound coming out so I could hear Letterman’s monologue and first bit before going back to bed to get up for school at 6:30.

I don’t think little 11 or 12 year old Stevie was ever caught watching Letterman at 12:45 as the rest of the house slept, but the exhilarating mix of fear and excitement are with me even now thinking about it. So that’s number ten. Dave was my rebellious stage.

I think all that points to how Dave and I might have drifted apart. In the mid-80s, he was a goofy overnight bad-boy TV host with bad hair, and I was a little kid who loved people who loved to make me laugh– but lived in fear that my mom would kill me if the sound from the TV woke her up. Also, my haircut came from Tony “The Barber” Scaccia on Seneca Street in South Buffalo.

Thirty years later, and we’ve both changed. Dave is richer than Rockefeller and late night royalty, but still with bad hair. I’m now a lumpy middle aged guy who loves people who love to make me laugh– but I live in fear that my wife will kill me if the glow of my iPhone wakes her up. Also, my haircut still comes from Tony “The Barber” Scaccia on Seneca Street in South Buffalo.

On to number nine–Grandma Cichon. It was my crazy-in-mostly-good-ways Grandma Cichon who put me onto Letterman when I was about ten years old. I think we were sleeping over at her house one night, when I first saw Johnny Carson’s monologue. It changed my life. It was like the news (which I loved and watched with my dad everyday), but it was funny. Jokes about the people in the news. Incredible.

I’d stay up (or more likely sneak up) and watch Carson whenever I could– the monologue and first bit, anyway. The only person I could to talk about the great, hilarious things I heard from Johnny was Grandma. My parents didn’t watch Carson– Dad turned off the news after the news part (he didn’t need weather and sports.) There weren’t many of my 6th grade friends watching Carson either.

So, when I’d regularly ride my bike from Orchard Park to Seneca Street in South Buffalo to visit with Grandma Cichon, Grandma Coyle, Gerry at the Paperback Trading Post, and Tony the Barber– I knew I’d be able to talk Johnny with Grandma Cichon. One day, she told me I should watch Letterman, and I was never one to disobey my grandmother. And so it began.

The number eight reason I’ll always love Letterman: I always enjoy a lovely beverage.

Number seven… for better or for worse, his TV persona has always been a reflection of who he really is. He’s an old crank now, and we see that on TV. Was Carson (who Dave is always seemingly compared to) better because he faked being a nice guy really well, and viewers might not have known that he was an abusive drunken womanizing bastard?

While I don’t really like this cranky old Dave, I think I’d like it better than having a cranky old man pretend like he was having fun running around catapulting meat products against the sides of buildings every day for a month.

The number six reason I’ll love David Letterman forever: Cigars. Big fat ones. For those who don’t remember, back in the old days, Dave used to come back from commercial breaks taking a last puff or two on a big cigar. Not so much long, but thick– a big ring gauge.

Two of the funniest people in my world were Dave and Groucho Marx, so I guess I thought smoking cigars would make me funnier. The great part is, in 1988, literally no one under the age of 80 smoked cigars. At 12 or 13 years old, I could walk into a drug store and buy cigars without a second thought– unless the thought was, “How nice that this young man is buying cigars for his Grandpa.”

The first one I smoked, I found in a drawer at Grandma Cichon’s house. The first pack I bought was at Rite Aid at the McKinley Mall (sorry Mom, I wasn’t going to a movie. I was going to the mall to smoke cigars.) I always wanted to find a fat one like the ones Dave smoked, and that took me on my bike up to Smoker’s Haven– which is still on Union Road in West Seneca. Again, as a 15 year old, I’d buy the big fat (cheap) Te-Amo cigars there without question.

I still smoke one or two cigars a year, maybe one on vacation. I was in the cigar store the other day, and still– thirty years later– found myself drawn to those fat 60-ring gauge monster stogies.

So I had Dave’s cigars as a young man, and at number five you’ll find another fashion trend I borrowed from Dave– double breasted suits. The first four suits I bought by myself were double breasted. They are still sharp, but it’s hard to look casual in a double breasted suit. And once you add a bow tie to your double breasted ensemble, it’s really hard to look avoid looking like you stepped out of 1947.

Senior photo, double breasted suit, trying to look serious.

Number four– my senior yearbook quote. Twenty years ago right now, I, along with the rest of the Orchard Park Class of 1995, was getting my senior yearbook. I think most of what goes on in high school is completely asinine, but believe it or not, that stance has softened greatly since the time I was actually in high school.

One thing I really thought was stupid was this general notion among many that “this was this best time of our lives,” and “we’ll never have more fun or be more happy,” blah, blah, blah.

Again, I have softened a bit on that through the years, but I can also say confidently that I was right: for me the best was yet to come. I still feel that way today.

Anyway, that notion of “greatest time ever” is reflected at it’s peak in senior statements/thank yous/quotes. I knew I really wouldn’t remember 5th period science or intramural basketball “4-ever,” so I decided to thank a list of funny people, politicians, news personalities, and radio stations– including of course Letterman.

I was mad that they misprinted the middle initial of NBC’s bow tie wearing newsman Irving R. Levine. I mentioned him even though he wasn’t in my senior study hall.

I acknowledge that my list is just as stupid as any other of the few hundred in that yearbook, but it was resoundingly substantive for me then, and it was also something different.

And the intention was to make you smile, if not at the joke, than the stupidity of it. That’s a Letterman trademark, and leads into the next on the Top Ten Reasons I’ll Always Love Dave…

Number three: he showed me the path to a great mix of intelligence and stupidity. I try to be really good at both of those things. I may have figured it out on my own, but having a little help at 12:35 every night didn’t hurt.

Number two is more of a technical appreciation that I’ve come to as a long time journalist and broadcaster. Being a good interviewer isn’t easy, but Dave generally makes it look so because he adapts in many, tiny nuanced ways to put his guests in the best light possible. Sometimes this means taking charge, sometimes taking a backseat.

Especially with the greats, Dave not only played his role, but relished it. No one can keep up with Don Rickles. Too many try. Many others laugh, which doesn’t really help Rickles. Dave knows how to let Rickles be the best Rickles.

Even now, while he might seem like grandpa interviewing some flavor of the week starlet, I think he does the best, most prohibitive-while-still-friendly interviews around.

And the number one reason I’ll love David Letterman forever… Three words: Larry Bud Melman.