Images Courtesy of Purdue University Libraries Archives and Special Collections
Students crowded into the Purdue Creamery to buy ice cream cones for a nickel a scoop when this photo was made in 1949.
By John Cleland, BS ’73, and J. L. Albright
Smith Hall was named after an area farmer who gave the university $50,000 to build it.
Once upon a time, a little bit of heaven was served up on Purdue’s West Lafayette campus at a popular spot known as the Purdue University Creamery. From the mid-1910s until 1969, many Purdue faculty and students found their way to Smith Hall to enjoy the sweet treats that were manufactured there.
You were just a few feet from ice cream paradise as you entered the main doors of the building into a small foyer. The small and often crowded creamery store was located on the ground floor, just beyond the main east-west hallway that now houses classrooms and offices of the Department of Entomology.
Large windows displayed inviting, three-gallon tubs of ice cream, each filled with tempting flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, butter pecan, black cherry and many others churned out by the students who worked at the creamery.
The smiling saleswomen, dressed in pressed white uniforms, were eager to mound high a double dip just for you. At a nickel per scoop, it was a cheap date for many Purdue students.
Space to house the creamery was made possible through a gift of $50,000 that Purdue received from William C. Smith, a farmer from nearby Williamsport, Ind. The money funded a building dedicated to instructing students on the principles of modern dairying. Smith Hall was completed in 1913.
The creamery was located toward the south end of the building, with a driveway for the delivery of milk located on the southeast corner of the property on what is now South University Street. Included in the original structure were classrooms, laboratories for research and teaching, office space and room for the production of dairy products.
Not long after Smith Hall opened, butter was being churned out of a large drum and stored in wooden barrels at the Purdue Creamery.
In 1915 the Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) annual report noted that the creamery produced 204,933 pounds of butter and nearly 25,000 pints of whipping cream. In later years, east and west wings were added to Smith Hall, greatly increasing square footage.
Despite the difficult times of the Great Depression, the creamery thrived and even expanded production during the 1930s. Throughout the decade, the creamery averaged more than $3,000 in annual profit and achieved a $4,307 profit in 1931. During the 1932–33 school year, the creamery processed more than 121,000 pounds of butter, 20,000 pounds of cheese, 6,300 gallons of sweet cream, almost 28,000 gallons of buttermilk, 60,500 gallons of milk, and more than 7,600 gallons of the famous Purdue ice cream, according to the AES annual report.
Money earned by the creamery provided a substantial reserve that paid for building repairs and new equipment. No taxpayer money was used to operate the creamery.
Earl Butz, BS ’32, MS ’37, former dean of agriculture at Purdue and U.S. secretary of agriculture, in a 2001 interview with J. L. Albright, remembered buying ice cream cones for a nickel when he was a student from 1928 to 1932. The price increased to a dime per scoop in 1968, a year before the facility closed. Merle Cunningham, professor emeritus in animal sciences at Purdue, said, “You never walked away hungry after having a double dip. You always got more than your money’s worth.”
(Provided by John Cleland)
An original butter wrapper that features the Purdue Creamery logo.
Purdue President Edward C. Elliott was so proud of the Purdue Creamery and its delicious treats that he had the creamery’s trademark copyrighted.
In a 1940 report on food purchased and served for campus use, Elliott announced to the Purdue trustees that all dairy products served on campus were manufactured at the Purdue Creamery and that no butter substitutes were served. It was board policy to give the students access to all the high quality milk and butter they wanted.
The decade of the 1950s saw the accomplishments of Dr. Fred Babel as a Purdue professor of animal sciences. He became famous and well respected in the dairy industry with his patent for a cream dressing added to cottage cheese. This dressing retarded bacterial growth to lengthen shelf life. He also developed the famous Purdue Swiss cheese, which is still sold by the Purdue Agricultural Alumni Association with proceeds funding student scholarships.
During the early part of the 1960s, the university trustees hired an architectural firm to develop plans for a new creamery to replace the antiquated facility used at that time. The building was to be completed by 1965 and financed without state-appropriated funds. Before planning was completed and construction started, the project was put on hold.
Sales plummeted following an Indianapolis Star article on September 28, 1962, that criticized Purdue for competing with privately owned dairies. The home delivery route sales, which were limited to the West Lafayette–Lafayette area, dropped drastically and were ultimately eliminated. This limited the creamery distribution to the food service complexes and student dormitories on campus.
In April 1969, university treasurer Vern Freehafer informed the public that the methods of dairy processing had changed drastically, causing the creamery to become outdated. The trustees believed dairy products could be purchased more reasonably on the competitive market, so dairy production at the creamery was halted on June 30, 1969.
Hundreds of patrons stopped by for one last taste of Purdue ice cream. Butz enjoyed a black cherry ice cream cone, while John Hicks, special assistant to President Frederick L. Hovde, trekked over from the Administration Building to get in on the nostalgia. Hundreds of potential customers would continue to make the pilgrimage to Smith Hall looking for that special treat even after the creamery closed its doors.
Today, if you are searching for that long-ago taste of rich, creamy paradise known as Purdue Creamery ice cream, you can find it at Pappy’s Sweet Shop in the Purdue Memorial Union.
Pappy’s features ice cream made with the old Purdue Creamery formula. That ice cream isn’t manufactured in Smith Hall, but it is made just down the road at Glover’s Ice Cream in nearby Frankfort, Ind.
John Cleland, BS ’73, is a retired high school biology teacher who lives in Zionsville, Ind., with his wife, Judy. Cleland was featured in a Purdue Agriculture Connections article in 2006. You can read his story here.
J. L. Albright was professor emeritus of animal sciences at Purdue and coached the dairy cattle judging team. Prior to his death on February 26, 2014, at age 83, Albright said he had always wanted to collaborate on a project with Cleland, who was one of his students. This article fulfills a wish for both men.