Dairy Queen manager Bonnie Nystrom was born in 1957, which coincidentally happens to be the same year in which construction on both her workplace and the big orange bridge was completed. Having worked there for a decade now, Nystrom said the unique heritage location is a vital part of Nelson.
“I was born and raised here, and one of my first memories is of my Dad gathering up the neighbourhood kids, loading them into the station wagon and driving us all down to get a banana split. Back then it was only 50 cents,” said Nystrom.
“It’s such a unique location, and it’s been here for 58 years. We have generations who have worked here, and I think it’s great that Dallas has taken over.”
Dallas Wolbaum bought the business and property from his mother Shirley, who has owned it for 23 years with his father Leroy, on April 1. Having recently sold his business the Mountain Hound Inn, he said he’s looking forward to the transition.
“It’s a real part of this town’s history. When we open in the spring it’s a rite of passage. It’s wonderful, because people know spring is in the air when Dairy Queen opens and they know it’s time to put the lawn mower away in the shed when we close.”
The rise of car culture
Highway construction in the 1950s led to a significant rise in automobile culture and car-oriented tourism in the Kootenays.
When the bridge replaced the series of cable ferries, which dated back to 1913, it initially had toll booths on either side. The lake-spanning road paved the way for both Dairy Queen and a since-closed A&W drive-in on the north side to open up shop.
According to the city’s heritage register “the Dairy Queen is one of a number of modern buildings of the early 1960s that changed the character of the city blocks leading up to the bridge.”
It goes on to say “the Dairy Queen building is highly valued in the community as a rare surviving example of the fast-food chain’s standard drive-in building design from the early 1960s … It’s asphalt-paved site is important as a post-WWII extension of the suburban pattern of development in Nelson’s Fairview suburb.”
The plate glass, concrete masonry, tar-and-gravel slope roofing and fluorescent lighting strips were all relatively cutting edge at the time.
Wolbaum said it’s his understanding that there are very few of these locations left, and his location is unique in Western Canada.
“I’m honoured to be here,” he said.
During the Star’s visit last week, Wolbaum demonstrated how every treat inside is hand-made.
“These treats are not pre-bought and sold. These are things that go through our hands. Our labour goes into every treat.”
He opened his blast freezer to show the moulds containing newly poured ice cream for dilly bars, waiting to be dipped.
Behind him was a wooden Coolerator door that has been there since Dairy Queen opened.
“I won’t say it’s better than a new one, but it’s been working since 1957 and there’s something to say for that. And much like this store operated in the ’50s, there’s a mix delivery man who opens up the cooler door, drops off the mix on a dolly and it waits here to go out to our machines to be turned into product.”
Wolbaum said some of the ice cream machines were replaced in the ’90s, due to servicing issues, but much of the operation continues to operate exactly how it always has.
And though there are plenty of delicious desserts to choose from, he likes to go with a traditional vanilla cone.
“I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, and I’m really glad. For me a vanilla cone does it all. I love when you get to the bottom there, where it’s sogged up a bit and it has that crunch. I limit myself to one a day.”
Wolbaum said he’s been hounded by questions about whether or not he will modernize the store, and he wants to assure everyone that he has no intention of doing so.
“They’ve been asking ‘are you going to put burgers in?’, ‘are you going to be open all-year around?’ and I’m sure Dairy Queen would love for me to do that, but I have no intention whatsoever of changing anything.”
The one small upgrade he’s made is incorporating a debit machine into their operation.
“I’ve brought us up to 1992,” he joked.
One of Wolbaum’s employees, first-year Selkirk student Keri Radcliffe, said the change was welcome.
“We don’t have to send so many people to the Husky for the ATM. It’s pretty nice,” she said.
Radcliffe and the other girls working at Dairy Queen are routinely asked to pose for photos, and Wolbaum said the location makes the perfect backdrop for vintage car enthusiasts and motorcyclists.
He hopes to team up with this year’s Queen City Cruise.
“Its a way to promote my business and it gives these guys a place to show their cars. I want this place to be a destination for cruise nights, and for motorcycle clubs as well.”
Passing the torch
Wolbaum said he now feels responsible for Dairy Queen’s legacy.
“Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Once you change it, it’s never coming back. There’s a legacy here, for sure, and I’m happy to take the torch. But it goes a lot deeper than that,” he said.
“These are the same bricks, there’s been slight renovations from the sign up top, which I think was changed in the ’70s, but for the most part this is how it looked, how it ran. And that’s the way it’s going to stay.”