by Brent Eades
The words “Almonte” and “ice cream” have long gone together — certainly since the day in 1919 when Louis Peterson stepped off the Renfrew to Ottawa train for a look around, and a few hours later found himself renting a vacant store beside the Bank of Montreal for $25 a month. From this modest start arose a successful ice-cream factory and store that by the 1980s was drawing 6,000 visitors a week and was selling its products to the Parliamentary Restaurant in Ottawa.
I’ll talk more about Peterson’s Ice Cream and its long history here in Almonte. But first let me tell you about one of Almonte’s lesser-known native sons, a man whose ice cream credentials go back even further.
In 1820 a Scottish weaver named John Nilson left his home in Paisley with his wife Agnes for the long ocean voyage to Canada. They docked in Montreal and eventually made the arduous journey to the newly settled village that would become Almonte, where they carved a farm from the bush.
Nilson — at some point his name changed to Neilson — always knew he had made the right choice. Later in life he wrote in a letter to the Almonte Gazette, “I have no cause to regret the step I took when I left Paisley. The weaving had been poor employment. You might exert yourself to the utmost, but poverty would stare you in the face. But Canada is a place where a man can exert himself to good purpose.”
In 1844 John and Agnes had a son, William. Little is known about his time in Almonte, but presumably it was much like that of any other youngster of the time. By 1865, young William Neilson grew restless with life on the farm and moved to the United States. There, in Rochester, he met the woman who would later become his wife, Mary Eva Kaiser.
By 1867 William was back in Canada, working in Toronto as a machinist. Walking along Yonge Street one day he saw an ad in a shop window for “home-made ice cream.” He was intrigued by the machinery he saw there, churning out frozen slabs of the product. But it would be another 26 years before he turned that encounter into one of the most successful Canadian companies of the 20th century.
Neilson’s next two decades saw setbacks. He went to Brockville to try his hand at retail, but in time the business failed. He returned to Toronto and opened another store, but it too failed. By 1891 he and wife Mary and their five children were in serious financial straits, and William worked a year on his brother’s farm in North Dakota to earn money for his family.
Mary, meanwhile, had rented a house on Toronto’s outskirts where she put in kitchen gardens and some dairy cows. By the time William returned from North Dakota, around 1892, a small cottage industry was established; Mary and the children were selling mincemeat and pails of milk to neighbours.
At some point William Neilson remembered that 1867 visit to the ice cream shop. He turned out his first blocks of the product in 1893 with used equipment bought from an acquaintance, enlisting the children to crank the machines. The business grew but was largely seasonal, as there was little demand for frozen treats in the winter months. So in 1906 Neilson made the momentous decision to begin making chocolate products.
The rest — well yes, it’s history. By 1914 William Neilson Inc was the largest manufacturer of chocolate and ice cream products in the British Empire, selling over 1,000,000 gallons of ice cream and 563,000 pounds of chocolate a year. Its brands in later years included many Canadian favourites, including Eskimo Pies, and Jersey Milk, Malted Milk and Crispy Crunch bars.
Sadly, Almonte’s William Neilson could enjoy only a part of his company’s huge success. In 1915 he stumbled on a plank at his factory, was injured, and died of a stroke shortly after. His son Morden took over the firm, which has prospered to this day.
As a curious aside, the renowned hockey coach Roger Neilson is a descendant of William’s grandfather.
“On the train to Ottawa I came up to the Almonte station and there was a bunch of people. And I thought to myself, ‘If all these people bought a pound of candy and an ice cream cone, I’d have it made.'”
This is how a young Greek immigrant named Louis Petropoulos (his surname meant simply “Peter’s son”) explained his decision to step off the train here in March of 1919. He recounts it in Steve Evans’ lovely book of Ottawa Valley portraits, Heart & Soul, published in 1987.
John Dunn provides a more detailed account of this fateful day in Almonte’s ice cream history. John was a noted local historian, and I’m guessing he would have collected it through conversations with Louis over time.
The ‘bunch of people’ Louis saw that day were Almonte families waiting for their sons to finally return from the Great War:
“Three more of Almonte’s soldiers, heroes returning from the wars in Europe, stepped into the throng and were immediately swept up in a whirling, joyful reunion of khaki, feathered bonnets and falling snow,” John writes. Louis had been in Canada six years by then, washing dishes here and there, and had been travelling from Renfrew to Ottawa when he impulsively decided to step off the train.
Louis explored Mill Street. “Busy place, friendly; nice people, Almonte”, he thought to himself. A vacant store beside the Bank of Montreal caught his eye. Louis had had thoughts of a candy store, maybe an ice cream shop, going through his mind for some time.
He decided to stop at Rooney’s pool hall and barber shop. After a couple of games with Pat Rooney and Jim Hogan he learned that a fellow named Donaldson was renting the store. Louis visited him and peeled off $25 of his remaining $41 to cover the first month’s rent. Then he went down the street to ask Mr. Plunkett, manager of the Bank of Montreal, for a $500 loan. Somehow he got it. This was March 19, 1919.
Louis wasted no time establishing his ice-cream business. I spent some hours reviewing microfilm at the Library and I see that his first ad in the Gazette seems to have been published on July 18, 1919.
By 1924 he had purchased the premises (now a vacant lot beside the Victoria Woolen Mill) formerly occupied by a succession of businesses, ending with a bath-house. That term likely has odd connotations in 2013, but another popular local historian, Gerry Wheatley, had this to say about it:
“It should be noted, for the younger generation, that at that time homes did not have plumbing or sewers for toilets. Townspeople used outhouses or the chamber pots. Also, there were no bathtubs as we know them.
“Water was heated on the kitchen stove and the person took a sponge bath or washed in a laundry tub in the middle of the kitchen floor.
“The Dunlop bath house, located where Jack Peterson [ed: Louis’s son] makes his ice cream, was divided for men and women. Each section was divided into stalls, with a tub of hot water in each stall. Water was readily available from the river behind the stone building, and the dirty soapy water was dumped back into the river.
“About this time, the roof of the building was raised to provide a large, full-height second floor hall with a hardwood floor. The second floor walls were made of brick rather than stone and can be seen today looking from the sides of the building.
“The upstairs was more popular than the main floor baths. There were dances every Saturday night, and often on other nights. Bill Dunlop taught dancing to the patrons, mostly round dancing. The hall was also used to show moving pictures, which were becoming popular at that time. You could rent the hall for community meetings and socials. Traveling preachers rented the hall for revival meetings and preached fire and brimstone, while collecting donations from the frightened audience.”
Louis Peterson’s ice-cream empire flourished from then until almost the end of the 20th century. “Peterson’s ice cream” was a popular excuse to visit Almonte for generations of people in Ottawa and the area, and a part of life for local residents. I took my own kids there often twenty years ago. It’s much missed.
Louis lasted almost a century himself. He passed away in 1988, at 92 years old. His was a very well-lived life indeed.