edible traditions

THE BIG CHILL
Chism Ice Cream set the standard for decades.

Written by Sharon Honig-Bear
Photos courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections

 

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Chism’s Ice Cream Factory on West Street, with its modern fleet of cars and trucks, 1921

We all scream for ice cream, or so the saying goes. Summer is inseparable from the pleasures of the cold and velvety confection. For fans of local food history, it’s also impossible to separate ice cream from the story of Ed Warren Chism. More than 100 years ago, he carved out an icy niche by bringing ice cream to homes and businesses throughout Northern Nevada.

Ingenious. Inventive. Entrepreneurial. These are apt descriptions for Ed, the fourth son of the Chism family. Cream practically ran through the veins of this influential clan. In 1880, they purchased 115 acres west of town, in the area of West Second Street along the Truckee River. Here they built a ranch, a farm, and an elegant brick home, and they founded Chism Creamery. It flourished from 1903 to 1912, under son John, who became Nevada’s leading dairyman. 

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Chism’s Ice Cream wagon, 1912

Churned by the Truckee River 

John’s younger brother, Ed, charted new territory when he started to produce ice cream. In 1905, in the ranch’s old milk house, he’d concoct the ice cream base. If you’ve ever laboriously hand cranked ice cream, you will admire Ed’s ingenuity. He unhooked the grindstone from the property’s waterwheel on the Truckee and used it to churn the mixture, which he then carted back to the milk house for packaging, turning out 25 gallons a day. Compare that to today’s total annual production of frozen dairy in the United States — more than 1.6 billion gallons!

Quick turnaround was important at a time without refrigeration. Ed sold the ice cream daily, peddling it door to door by horse-drawn carriage. By 1910, Ed had hired his first ice cream maker and expanded delivery into Sparks. Loaded with entrepreneurial spirit, Ed marketed to soda fountains, Wilson’s Drug Co. being the first.

Ice cream saloons

Although clever, Ed didn’t invent the ice cream craze in the Reno-Tahoe area. In 1871, an “ice cream saloon” appeared at Donner Lake. Newspaper ads in 1873 described an attached ice cream saloon for women at The Woodcock Chop House on Virginia Street. That same year, the ladies of the Congregational Society were selling ice cream and strawberries near the train depot as a fundraiser on the Fourth of July.

In 1916, the tradition of a company picnic began in the Chism apple orchard. Men were hired to hunt doves for the picnickers’ meal. A severe winter also marked that year, but despite snowdrifts stopping the streetcars, ice cream delivery continued by bobsled, drawn by a large horse named George.

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Ed Chism and daughter, Alice Jane, with Chism’s Ice Cream delivery truck, 1921

Moving downtown

With popularity came expansion. In 1918, Ed was turning a profit and moved his manufacturing downtown to 247 West St. Within three years, Chism Ice Cream was producing more than 100,000 gallons of ice cream annually, with 18 employees and a fleet of five motor vehicles. A series of expansions followed over the years.

Advertising of the era called Chism ice cream, “pure and delicious.” Debbie Hinman, Reno historian, reminisces: “There are a few memories vividly etched in my mind, such as Chism Ice Cream with its polka-dot packaging.” 

Local author Karl Breckenridge, aka Ol’ Reno Guy, said, “I remember that ice cream like it was yesterday. It was wonderfully smooth and deliciously creamy.”

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Two men in Chism’s delivery truck in front of Chism’s Ice Cream Factory, 1921

Always forward thinking, in 1933, Ed installed a bottling machine and entered the soft drink field. The 7UP franchise was acquired in 1936, and beverage sales were booming. By 1942, the plant had 65,000 feet of floor space and was producing 175 gallons of ice cream and 80 cases of soda every hour.

Just as the Truckee River flows past the old Chism grounds, time has rolled on. Carnation purchased the business in 1960, still branding the ice cream with the Chism name until the 1970s. The manufacturing plant downtown was demolished and is now a parking lot. A street named for the family still is tucked behind their former home. That stately property at 1401 W. Second St. is now an events venue called The Elm Estate. It remains to be seen whether brides will offer doves and ice cream to their guests.

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Sharon Honig-Bear was the longtime restaurant writer for the Reno Gazette-Journal. She relishes Reno history and is a tour leader with Historic Reno Preservation Society. You can reach her with comments and story suggestions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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