How Two Rivers invented the ice cream sundae

By Dean Robbins | July 14, 2022

  • Author Dean Robbins enjoys an ice cream sundae.

Author Dean Robbins enjoys an ice cream sundae. (Maureen McCollum/WPR)

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Wisconsin is home to many firsts. The first blender, the first typewriter, and even malted milk was developed and introduced to the world right here in the dairy state. Two Rivers is the home of the first ever ice cream sundae. Well that last one is debated by some. Dean Robbins explains.

How Two Rivers Invented the Ice Cream Sundae

I like driving across Wisconsin to see legendary historical sites. I’ve planned whole trips around the Eau Claire baseball field where Hank Aaron got his start and the Janesville house where Abraham Lincoln spent the night. But every once in a while I stumble across a bit of Wisconsin history I knew nothing about.

That happened on a recent drive through the northeast part of the state, when I pulled into Two Rivers. In Central Park, I noticed an official Wisconsin Historical Marker claiming it as the birthplace of the ice cream sundae—coincidentally my favorite dessert. Could such a major phenomenon have originated in this small town?

According to the marker, a local man named George Hallauer walked into a soda fountain on 15th street in 1881. He asked owner Edward Berner to top a dish of ice cream with chocolate sauce, a substance previously reserved for ice cream sodas. The new concoction caught on, and Berner began selling it for a nickel—but only on Sundays.

Enter a 10-year-old girl, who insisted on having a dish of ice cream “with that stuff on top” on a different day of the week. That was out of the question for Berner—until the girl charmingly suggested that they “pretend it was Sunday.” That opened the floodgates, with the shopkeeper offering the dish every day in many flavors.

The unusual spelling of “sundae” started when a salesman placed an order for Berner’s canoe-shaped dishes with his glassware company. He requested “sundae dishes” with an “e” at the end rather than a “y,” and the rest is history. Or so says the state of Wisconsin.

Is this amazing story for real? Standing there in Central Park, I searched for “ice cream sundae origin” on my phone. Sure enough, Two Rivers has rivals to the claim. The most aggressive challenger is Ithaca, New York, which points to a 19th century newspaper ad for a locally served sundae. In a New York Times article on the dispute, Ithaca’s mayor sneered at Two Rivers, saying, “We have the historical documents and they don’t.”

Two Rivers refused to take that lying down. The city passed a resolution demanding that Ithaca “cease and desist” with its sundae slanders. Residents also deluged Ithaca’s mayor with postcards picturing the Wisconsin Historical Marker. On matters of milk fat, Ithaca surely learned that you cross the Dairy State at your peril.

So what’s the truth? To gather crucial evidence, I strolled to the Two Rivers visitor center in a 1850s inn. You can bet the complex houses a soda fountain, named after local hero Edward Berner.

Purely for the sake of historical research, I ordered an ice cream sundae. Was it a descendant of the world’s first sundae, served here in 1881? Sorry, Ithaca, but I have no documentation. All I’ll say is that, with its thick chocolate sauce, overflowing whipped cream and juicy cherry, the dish made me a believer.


(This story originally aired on August 10, 2018.)

Song: “September Song” by Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble

Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins is a children’s author based in Madison. He has won state and national awards for arts, features and news stories, and has contributed to magazines and newspapers around the country.
2022-07-07T14:21:10-05:00Tags: , , , , |

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