When it comes to soft serve: ice cream, frozen custard or yogurt, Berkshire residents have many vendors from which to choose. But as a kid in the 1950s, I remember that for years just about the only choice was Dairy Queen.
On hot days our family stood in line at the Dairy Queen and, despite the heat, our favorites were the hot chocolate, butterscotch, pineapple or strawberry sundaes and all had the signature twist on top. Milkshakes, dipped cones and Dilly Bars were near the top of the list too!
You could always spot a DQ by its sign with cone topped by a twist and the company name; many were neon. Dairy Queen was a pioneer in franchise operations beginning in Illinois in 1938. Today there are over 5,600 of them worldwide in 19 countries.
At one time the Berkshires had seven shops. In 1957 following the early success of McDonald's, DQ added the Brazier name and red logo to its new gambrel-roofed stores that now included burgers and fries and a drive-thru window. A brazier is a charcoal grill and was selected that year as the name for Dairy Queen stores offering burgers.
By 1948, Dairy Queen had 600 stores in the United States and was looking for a Berkshire franchisee. Ironically a man whose surname was "Freeze" became that franchisee. In 1949, Lyle Freeze, who owned a trucking company in Rock Island, Ill., built that first Dairy Queen at 142 West Housatonic St.
He and his wife, Maxine, saw a great opportunity and a perfect area in the Berkshires. Freeze got his foot in the door early with a $10,000 franchise fee. (Today the same start-up with all equipment, fees, construction, supplies, etc., would cost between $400,000 and $1 million.)
Freeze opened a second DQ store on upper North Street in 1950 and seven years later, he sold this operation to a good friend, Gino Valenti, of Pittsfield. That year Freeze also bought a house at 197 Tyler St. and razed it to erect the area's third DQ. In less than a year he sold this store to Mrs. Henry Kirchner. (This location still operates as Dairy Cone.)
With his growing success as a franchisee, Freeze opened an A&W Root Beer stand at 1229 North St. and brought in his buddy, Valenti, to lease and manage the eatery while Mrs. Valenti continued to run the North Street Dairy Queen
In 1960, Freeze named Homer May, a 25-year-old GE draftsman, as (seasonal) manager of the West Housatonic Street store. Shortly thereafter, the Freezes moved near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the entrepreneur bought a car parts business. He still had five Dairy Queens in the Berkshires, including sites in Great Barrington and North Adams, and one A&W Root Beer location.
In 1963, Freeze returned to Pittsfield and built another Dairy Queen on Elm Street at Edward Avenue. The Elm Street Dairy Queen would be Pittsfield's first Brazier concept building and would have Homer May as the manager. Freeze then sold the West Housatonic store to Michael Hashim, who wanted to open a package store across from his Hashim's Market.
Over the next 10 years, Lyle Freeze sold off his Dairy Queen and A&W interests. A number of people bought, operated and re-sold all of these Dairy Queens. One by one, they closed, with the exception of the North Adams store, which remains in operation.
Lyle and Maxine Freeze moved to Texas to be close to their daughter and family. Ever the entrepreneur, Freeze opened another business there, the L&M Tool Co. The original founder of the Dairy Queens in the Berkshires passed away at the age 81 in 2003. I have to thank Mr. Freeze for introducing me to Dairy Queen soft serve as, I still love them, especially those thick rich "Blizzards!"
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the newly opened Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." For information go to berkshirecarousel.com.