Dairy Queen: Small-Town Texas Institution

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To view
a slide show of several Texan Dairy Queens, click
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Along the cracked
and endless highways of rural Texas, certain types of landmarks
appear repeatedly. Whitewashed grain elevators rise on the horizon,
like flags marking the settlements below. Larger towns have schools,
and almost every town has a water tower. Wherever Main Street is,
the courthouse sits at the end of it. There’s the cemetery, and
there are the churches. Then, if the town is big enough, there’s
the Dairy Queen.

For residents,
the Dairy Queen is at once a restaurant, meet up spot, and place
to pass the time. For travelers, the Dairy Queen is an oasis; it’s
what transforms a blur of buildings into a real, memorable place.
As a native of the relatively large (population 212,169) city of
Lubbock, which is six hours from everywhere, I’ve always appreciated
rural Dairy Queens. At home, my family never goes to a Dairy Queen.
On the road, though, we sometimes start planning our orders hours
in advance. And yet I’ve never known how Dairy Queen came to be
the small town restaurant of Texas.

A few weeks
ago, I traveled to Idalou (population 2,157) to sit at the Dairy
Queen and ponder Texans’ affection for the brand. It was a Sunday,
and church had just let out. Almost every seat was full. A little
boy in church clothes carefully deconstructed a vanilla cone. An
old man and woman sat on the same side of a table, the woman feeding
the man a Blizzard. All over the state, citizens of small towns
had made the same ritual Sunday trip, and within a few hours, before
the wind picked up, everyone went home.

Searching for
Dairy Queen in Google’s newspaper archives:

In 1997, Warren
Buffet buys Dairy Queen for $585 million. In the 1950s, Dairy Queen
goes national. In the 1940s, Dairy Queen ceases to be a restaurant
and becomes an honorific. "A Dairy Queen was chosen. She is
willowy Willough Thomas." "Miss Alice Baker, 18 year-old
Dairy Queen of Wisconsin, arrived yesterday … to celebrate the
climax of Cheese Week." All over the country, "girls 17
to unmarried" pursue the coveted title. Prior to 1900, America
fades from the news. Real monarchs appear. "The Queen is one
of the most enthusiastic farmers in the British Isles … there
is not a dairy in the three kingdoms that can hold a candle to the
dairy at Shaw Farm, Windsor."

Asking around
about Dairy Queen, I eventually encountered Robert Mayfield. In
the 1940s, Mayfield’s father, Tolbert, a cattleman who traveled
between Kansas and Texas, happened to stop at a Dairy Queen in Forth
Worth, and decided to open his own. Though an attorney by training,
Robert Mayfield now operates a small fleet of stores. "My son
does a lot for me," he said when I called him. "But I’m
still the emperor."

When Tolbert
Mayfield opened his stores, franchising was new, and Dairy Queens
were spreading rapidly across Texas. Most of the innovation came
from franchisees. "My dad was experimenting with drive-in windows,
and even the first dining rooms, if you can believe that,"
said Robert. Another second-generation operator, Perry Anderson,
told me Texas Dairy Queens were the first to serve food. In January
of 1950, Anderson’s dad became one of the earliest franchisees to
sell hamburgers. To this day, Texas Dairy Queens offer a food menu
unique to the state.

Read
the rest of the article

April
8, 2010

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