All photos and text by Kevin Harrison
I must admit to feeling somewhat melancholy as I was driving to the old Mehlhose Ice Cream factory site (2927 4th, Wyandotte). But it must be prefaced that the chance to be inside a building which could only be peered into my entire life would trump any "what if's" I might be feeling.
When the News-Herald mentioned that the facility was a literal time warp - as if a worker locked the door after a long day and never returned - it was the absolute truth. Emerson Mehlhose's desk out front still had news articles and notes set upon it from 1996. We did not even need to be told not to touch the materials; we naturally respected the way he left things, assuming that we knew he might be the next one through the door!
The building is in remarkably good shape considering all the years it may have gone through the yearly elements without heat & utilities. It was also happily free of vagrancy. All that would be needed was some plaster re-dos, wiring, lighting and code specifications to be met, and it might still give Sanders and Stroh's runs for their money.
It brought melancholy to me though, and not because other family members didn't want to carry the business on. We must respect their decisions and reasonings. But it did surprise me that (as long as it was closed), Wyandotte's Historical arm didn't see fit to open it up as a museum of its own. Someone who would pass by and take a peek inside over the years undoubtedly saw two large Kelvinator freezers spanning the main (parlor) floor. Those were missing during the tour, and it was simply something that couldn't go unnoticed. A week after the Open House, the storage tank for the fresh mix (pictured with its machinery to the right) was set to be sold or scrapped.
Until I had read the News-Herald article advertising the Open House, I didn't know it had actually sold. When I profiled the building with the "For Sale" sign on Downriver Things back in November, I feared the building might have been leveled for parking. Thankfully, we won't need to witness that. Kudos also to the surviving Mehlhose family members (Noreen in particular) for desiring the integrity of the block to remain... and not sell the memories short.
It was also a disappointment to hear for sure it would no longer make ice cream, though this was fully expected. The combination of that as well as my jobs at Calder Dairy in 2000-2001 definitely piqued the interest of this frugal individual.
I had taken a brief job at Maximillian's Mexican Restaurant on Elm Street downtown (now the site of The Little Pierogi & Crepe Kitchen) at about the time the Detroit Free Press did a great write-up on Emerson's retirement. The manager of Maximillian's was looking to create a dessert menu, and one day we spent ten minutes simply staring through the windows. "You know, this place just might work," he told me. "I wonder how much he wants for it?"
It was only "fantasy" talk, but it did inspire me to attempt home-based ice cream making for a short while. I would have loved to obtain the old recipe from the family... I'd have soaked up the experience like a sponge.
Overall, I would say the end result ended as well as could be hoped. Under the ownership of Thomas Roberts, who plans to locate his growing architectural firm here while focusing efforts on historical preservations, the building is in good hands. He had childhood ambitions to one day own this building, as did I one time.
The self-guided tour, which had over 200 people, probably stirred up the friendly spirit of Emerson Mehlhose - aviator extraordinaire - to the point I thought he'd wonder where all of Saturday's foot traffic came from.
For one glorious day, the traffic came back inside. And that's where I sensed the smile & satisfaction from the face of the man who made an unforgettable institution possible.
We certainly didn't forget. Our loss lest we do.