The days are shorter in September and the nights are cooler. Not as many people feel like buying ice cream.
“Right now I’m at the stage where, when I run out of ice cream, I’m done,” Susan Jensen said.
For the last 30 years, she’s driven Danee’s Ice Cream Wagon around Wausau. By now, generations of kids have heard the chiming organ music from the speaker on top of the truck and have run out to catch her at the curb.
But this is her last year doing it. She’s put the ice cream truck and the business up for sale. When she decides to end her season — around mid-September, she said — it will probably also be the last time she does the route.
“I’m getting older,” said Jensen, 73. “It’s time to not be working seven days a week.”
In 1990, Jensen bought an old mail truck from a local bakery. It was small and square and could turn on a dime.
“We stripped it down and painted it white. I painted different neon-colored circles on it,” she said.
She named the business by combining the names of her two daughters, Dana and Randi Renee. Sometimes she brought them along in the truck.
“The youngest one caused me the most problems,” Jensen said. “She’d holler out the window, ‘Free ice cream! Free ice cream!’”
Jensen had to explain to her daughter, then 3 or 4, that the idea was to sell the ice cream.
She’s since upgraded from the mail-delivery vehicle to a boxy white truck with room for freezers in the back. On the side, she posts stickers of the season’s treats — a cherry/blue raspberry Sno-cone; a Choco Taco; a lemon and strawberry Spider-Man ice cream bar “with 2 Gumball Eyes.” Kids run down the block to catch her.
“My mom and I have always seen her every summer,” said Monique Clark, who on a September evening was trying to convince her own son to try a Creamsicle. “We all grew up with this as kids. The biggest thrill when you were a kid was hearing that ice cream truck music and actually getting to catch it.”
Kids tell Jensen when they got a grade they’re proud of. Sometimes they confide in her.
“I listen,” Jensen said. “A lot of adults just ignore when a kid is talking. I usually listen, and if they have a question, I try to answer it for them.
“Some of them tell me their life story. If they’re having hard times, they tell me them…Some of them, I’ve grown up with them for 30 years.”
Even the adults will share news with her. A young family bought a house in the neighborhood. A mom is expecting a new baby. Jensen is friendly and she’s empathetic. If the parents seem like they wouldn’t mind, she sometimes gives the kids an extra treat.
“Sometimes I have parents come up [and say], ‘My child really wants something and I have no money,’” Jensen said. “I will let them get something. If they don’t have enough money, or they’re a little short, I’ll just say, ‘It’s OK.’”
Jensen knows how it feels. She grew up on a dairy farm outside Wausau. Her dad died when she was 5.
“We had nothing growing up,” she said. “I’ve worked all my life.”
For decades, Danee’s Ice Cream Wagon was her second job. She’d drive her routes after she finished an eight-hour shift working in accounting for a local manufacturer. But since she retired from that job, selling ice cream has been her main gig. She also makes art and crafts that she sells with a friend and she’s planning to spend more time on those projects when she retires the ice cream truck.
Every evening from late April to mid-September, she leaves around 4:30 p.m. — sometimes earlier — and drives her routes until it gets dark. She’s out on weekends, pulling up near elementary school playgrounds in the afternoons. And she’s methodical on the routes: on Fridays, the east side, north of Bridge Street; on Tuesdays, the northwest side, and so on. Parts of her route take her out of town into the country, but mostly she’s in Wausau’s neighborhoods.
“Every year, my business gets better and better,” she said. “This year was a really good year. I figured I’d quit while I was on top.”
She hasn’t found a buyer yet, but she said she’s had a couple of people express interest in buying the business. She hopes she can find someone who will keep up the same routes she’s driven for three decades. She says she’s loved doing it.
“It’s fun for me,” she said. “I can be myself. I’m my boss, I have nobody telling me what to do. I like meeting people and I like seeing the kids have fun.”