Gary’s Ice Cream / Creamette

by Tim Gilmore, 1/1/2021

They remember Gary, they say. Nobody worked harder. Never had a bad day. Always wore a smile. His last name was Goin or Johnson or Harper or Cross or Kaufman. He came from another country, they say. He was Filipino and went back home to the Philippines. Or he had blue eyes. Or he married a Filipina. He retired because he was tired, had suffered “some kind of loss,” said, “I been doin’ this a long time.” He lived on the Southside, or he lived above the shop on the Northside, Main Street and 44th. They say his daughter reopened the place in the ’90s. Nancy Dubberly O’Neal says, “I don’t remember the man, but I remember his milkshakes,” and that’s the usual sentiment.

Gary’s Ice Cream, John Margolies, 1979

Gary, it seems, is a cipher, a man whose basic characteristics change from one person’s memory to the next. But everyone remembers the ice cream. The coconut milkshake. Or the pineapple. Paula Partin Allred remembers “trying to suck the little chunks of pineapple up that straw.” The lime freeze. Bubble gum ice cream. The Gary’s Special, which Louise Hall Hersey describes as “a banana split but upside-down in a cup or cone.”

“My Aunt Brenda and I went to Gary’s Ice Cream all the time,” Donna Machiavelo says. “I’d have a pocket full of pennies. She was eight years older than me. One time I went to school with her, and some boy, a friend of hers, picked me up and held me upside down and all my money fell out. I was so upset. I thought I wouldn’t be able to go to Gary’s.”

John Margolies in 1987, courtesy The New York Times

When the photographer and architectural critic John Margolies drove through Jacksonville in the late 1970s, taking pictures of the odd vernacular buildings he loved at Jax Beach and across the Northside, he found Gary’s, the paint peeling from the turquoise roof, the electrically lit ice cream cones still hovering over the rounded cantilevered sides, pines and oaks lurking silhouetted against the sky. The glass blocks in the middle, the black soda shop wall tiles, and the single trash can and picnic table on either side of the building complete the symmetry. Around the roof at either curved corner, block letters spell, “Thick Shakes.”

When Margolies died at age 76 in 2016, The New York Times called him “the country’s foremost photographer of vernacular architecture—the coffee shops shaped like coffeepots; the gas station shaped like a teapot; and the motels shaped like all manner of things, from wigwams to zeppelins to railroad cars—that once stood as proud totems along America’s blue highways.” Margolies drove more than 100,000 miles to take tens of thousands of photographs for more than 30 years.

Beaches Drive-In, John Margolies, 1979

All 50 states have their “Margolies buildings.” He crisscrossed Jacksonville in 1979, wandering its back roads and byways, looking for those strange and whimsical structures barely dated but becoming obsolete that demanded he take their picture. At the beach, he photographed the Beaches Drive-In and the five story Red Cross lookout tower. On the Northside, he captured buildings like Gary’s Ice Cream, the Art Moderne-derived Winn-Dixie grocery store at Main and 15th Streets and Slappey’s Town of Ghent Motel.

A 1986 Los Angeles Times story called Slappey “a sailor who married a Belgian woman during World War II.” Earlier stories called her a “Belgian war bride.” When the couple returned to Florida, the sailor “built a motel office—with a residence on the second story—in the shape of the town gates of Ghent, his wife’s hometown, so she would not get homesick.” Nobody could think Slappey’s building Belgian. (Oh, and the Ghent Gate is actually in Bruges.) It was in a room at Slappey’s that a 32 year old police officer named Grady Belger murdered his 19 year old “female companion,” Margaret Snowden, when he “jokingly” put his gun to her head and “accidentally” pulled the trigger on March 14, 1964.

Slappey’s Town of Ghent Motel, John Margolies, 1979

In the 1970s of John Margolies, when Melanie Kaleel-Shelton got sick with mononucleosis in high school, she ate marshmallow sundaes from Gary’s every day for months. When Susan Martin-Wyatt was pregnant with her firstborn, she ate a vanilla milkshake from Gary’s every day. When Louise Hall Hersey’s mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s progressed, and the old woman regressed, Louise took her daily to Gary’s, where she ate Gary’s Special “much like she had as a child.”

But while thousands of people who grew up in the nearby North Shore or Panama Park neighborhoods remember Gary’s ice cream, few recall anything specific about Gary, and what one person remembers, the next person’s memory contradicts.

Kelly Boyle Murdock paid attention though. She says, “Gary always wore white pants, a white t-shirt, a white apron and a white paper hat. We used to sit and eat our ice cream and watch him make orders. I remember him talking very fast and he had the bluest eyes.”

Susan Thornton Harrell says Gary Harper lived behind her on Damascus Road South in the Spring Glen neighborhood on the Southside in the late 1960s. City directories put Gerald G. Harper at 5241 Damascus. (I’m resisting making weak references to the blinding of Saul / the Apostle Paul on the Road to Damascus in the New Testament.) Documents show Gerald and his wife Mary divorced in 1981 and he married Lourdes Uy Lao in 1983. Before Damascus, he’d lived in a little bungalow with a big porch at 3924 Springfield Boulevard in Brentwood. From his first marriage, he had a stepson and stepdaughter whose last name was Coffman and two sons who died middle-aged not many years ago.

And 1950s directory listings for 5325 Main, a block down and across the street from George Strynar’s Tavern, now Kingdom of God Outreach Ministries, show Gary took over the Creamette. Which takes me across town to the Dreamette, the city’s oldest ice cream shop, at 3646 Post Street in Murray Hill, started by Johnnie Nettles in 1948.

Now I can see it. It’s the same design. The glass blocks, the slick black tiles, the shape of the building. Standing in front of the Dreamette on the first day of 2021, I’m looking through John Margolies’s eyes at Gary’s Ice Cream Drive-In in 1979. Electrically lit ice cream cones hovered over both Creamettes, west in Murray Hill and north at Main and 44th, in the early 1950s.

opening night at the original Creamette, now the Dreamette, Murray Hill, 1948

City directories, 1955, list the Sistrunk Brothers, “cnfrs” (confectioners abbreviated), each with their own Creamette, Elwyn Sistrunk on Main Street, Claude G. Sistrunk on Post. When the original Creamette opened in Murray Hill, high school football fans, according to a framed and faded and undated newspaper article beside the Dreamette menu, wrapped between 1500 and 1800 people down Post Street and Edgewood Avenue, waiting in line. Claude died in 1971, but his original Creamette had become the Dreamette when new owners bought it in ’69. Elwyn died in ’94, aged 89, his Creamette having long been Gary’s until Gerald Harper sold it in ’88.

Alma Geoghagan doesn’t know what happened to Gary, didn’t know his last name was Harper. In 1992, she reopened the business as Gary’s International Ice Cream and Sandwiches. She’s obviously not Gary’s daughter, as many people still think. She grew up eating ice cream at Gary’s and says it “devastated” her when it closed. “Gary was just a li’l old man. I was just 23 when I bought the business.” When the film crew shooting Sudden Terror: The Hijacking of School Bus #17, directed by the actor Paul Schneider, met each morning at Gary’s in 1995, they decided to put the crew in the movie.

In Margolies’s famous photograph, a photo of Gary’s Special hangs over a “Closed Wednesday” sign in the window between the glass blocks. Nathalie Starling says, “That looks like my green Plymouth Fury parked on the street.” She remembers dipping cones into butterscotch, chocolate or strawberry. Beside a “Dip Top” sign in the front window, plastic stencil letters promise “Ice Cream + Sherbert [sic] Cones Vanilla Chocolate Strawberry Butter Almond Peach Lime Pineapple.”

These days, the building, painted yellow and green, houses J Lemon Pepper Fish and Chicken. The fried conch combo costs $16.99, the seven piece jumbo shrimp dinner $10.99. The old soda shop look is gone. Instead of “Thick Shakes,” block letters over the front windows say, “Fish” and “Chicken Gizzards.”

detail of Gary’s Ice Cream, John Margolies, 1979

Joe Hartsfield remembers Gary. His great grandfather owned the building. Gary worked hard, often thanklessly, for decades, and when he was done, he was done. Joe says, “Everyone in my family that might have details is dead, but Gary retired to the Philippines with his wife.” So, slowly, a portrait of the man emerges. Thousands of people remember his ice cream. Only a few former patrons recall the man who served it.

Joe worked with Gary in 1988 to reopen the business so Gary could retire. “I rolled out the awning one Saturday morning with Gary and there was a line around the building in minutes. He and Lourdes were excited their legacy was going to continue.” Then Joe’s great grandfather died, the rent rose, and complications from inheritance ensued. When the family sold to Alma, Joe took it hard and the heritage of Gary’s bifurcated like a religion when the first prophet’s gone. Three decades later, he’s still furious about it. “Gary’s would still be around today, just like the Dreamette,” Joe says, “if only things stuck with the original ways.”

If you’d have asked Gerald Harper whom he really was, he might have had a few defining sentences ready. But who are you outside your own answer? What’s your identity in the mind of your community? And what proportion of remembrance is wholly wrong? Not only do pieces not fit the puzzle, but the overall image reshapes itself continually. Who are we, after all?

Gary’s Ice Cream, John Margolies, 1979

Ah, but history’s onto itself. It knows. History laughs at itself as authoritative. History drives lost across the city. History’s open all night. History is murder and sex and ice cream. It’s everything, but mostly in between. History is sundaes upside down, but guanabana freezes, Roadside Americana and the unknown hour of your death. (You live your deathday every year just like you do your birthday.) So at least John Margolies snapped these pictures. You can always walk into 1979 and order yourself the upside down special. Gary will smile at you, always, turn to his next order, and only later, always later, you’ll know you never knew who Gary ever really was.