Just down the street from the Michigan Radio office is an iconic Ann Arbor destination: Washtenaw Dairy. It didn’t come by the label of “icon” lightly; the dairy is celebrating its 85th anniversary this week.
Today, Washtenaw Dairy is known for ice cream, doughnuts, and coffee. But when Edwin Laubengayer opened the shop in the middle of the Great Depression, it was one of the state’s many dairy shops.
Michigan isn’t known for dairy the same way as Wisconsin is, but it’s still a crucial agricultural output for the state. According to Lauria Perkins at the Michigan History Center, that began in the mid-nineteenth century when Secretary of the State Board of Agriculture Sanford Howard challenged Michigan farmers to grow commercial dairies.
The challenge worked, and that Michigan-made milk and cheese had to be delivered somehow. Specialty dairy stores were in high demand through the 1960s. In Ann Arbor alone, there was Washtenaw Dairy, Ann Arbor Dairy Co., Hirth Bros. Dairy, West Side Dairy, Miller’s Dairy Farm Store, and Wurster Dairy.
Dairies pasteurized milk delivered by farmers, and then delivered it to citizens. (Even the dairy trucks were Michigan-made!) A 1936 ad in the Ann Arbor News for West Side Dairy promised, “Our motorized delivery system covers every street in Ann Arbor. We know that you will be more than pleased with the quality of our product and out every effort to give satisfactory service.”
Eventually, improvements in home refrigeration led to the end of milk delivery. That didn’t mean places like Washtenaw Dairy were out of the milk game, though. Innovations were still being made — like in 1965, when the dairy switched from glass bottles thanks to “modern technology and the burgeoning field of plastics.” Plastic bottles were described in the Ann Arbor News as “a fresh twist in the drive to put automation to work for the housewife.”
After 85 years, Washtenaw Dairy is still independently owned and operated, outliving the rest of Ann Arbor’s local dairies. That’s largely thanks to a shift in business tactics: when long-time employees Jim Smith and Doug Raab took over the business in the 1970s, they added doughnuts and coffee to the menu.
Those famous homemade doughnuts brought in local blue collar workers who still stop by when the shop opens at 5 a.m., and retirees are known to populate the Dairy’s long tables for daily catch-ups.
Washtenaw Dairy doughnuts are now found all around Ann Arbor — including the Michigan Radio office during our fund drives. But while doughnuts may be the Dairy’s fall and winter staple, in the summer months, ice cream still reigns supreme.
Michigan ice cream traditions
The first ice cream cone was introduced in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and it has since become a staple of Michigan summers. Everyone now boasts of their hometown ice cream shop as having the “best” scoops in the state. That’s largely thanks to dairy shops like Washtenaw Dairy, which often doubled as ice cream parlors or soda fountains.
In the years following the World Fair, Laurie Perkins says, ice cream parlors became all the rage. Dairy shops needed a business to supplement milk processing and delivery, and ice cream came naturally.
Perkins says, “Ice cream is a byproduct of creamery production, which is a byproduct of cheese production. Cheese was either made with cream in the milk — i.e. whole milk — or separated out to be made into butter or ice cream.”
Some of Michigan’s most famous varieties of ice cream arose from changing resources, including our most unique flavor: Superman.
Superman ice cream is, of course, a bright mixture of red, yellow, and blue. The original version was made by Stroh’s Brewery during Prohibition. The ice cream business proved so successful that even once beer was legal again, Stroh’s branched into an ice creamery.
There are a variety of takes on Superman ice cream, depending on the brand. In Stroh’s Superman, the yellow was lemon, red was Red Pop (strawberry cream soda), and the blue, Blue Moon. What’s the flavor of Blue Moon, you ask? That remains a mystery, but most Michigananders would attest that it’s delicious.
Washtenaw Dairy made ice cream in-house until 1965, but still continues to distribute local dairy products today. In fact, most of their ice cream is Stroh’s, including that famous Superman.
In writing this story, I wanted to be as accurate and thorough as possible. So I rounded up whatever Michigan Radio reporters and interns were available, and took them around the block for a taste test.
It wouldn't be quite accurate to say walking into Washtenaw Dairy is like stepping into the past; it's more like stepping into a hodgepodge of history. Some decor is as old as the store itself, and a red booth in the corner is more remniscent of the 1950s. Framed photos from the 1970s to the 2000s line wood paneled walls. Old glass milk bottles are displayed above cases selling milk, cheese, and beer.
The biggest thing that hasn't changed in Washtenaw Dairy's 85 years is the friendliness of the employees, who greeted us and immediately began piling massive scoops of ice cream into skinny cake cones. Here's hoping that welcome remains the same for the next 85 years.
Washtenaw Dairy is holding an 85th anniversary celebration on July 4th. Find out more here.