Schuyler MacPherson takes a vanilla ice cream bar out of the freezer, dips it twice in liquid chocolate, presses crumbled Butterfingers into the chocolate, wraps tissue paper around the bottom to catch drips and hands over the finished ice cream bar.
It’s the signature product of MacPherson’s Ice Cream, a stand with a rich, not to mention calorie-laden, history at the L.A. County Fair. The annual event, which ends Monday, is marking its centennial. And so is MacPherson’s.
Continuing through four generations, MacPherson’s Ice Cream is the only direct tie from the 1922 fair to the 2022 fair.
MacPherson’s 1922 origin can’t be proved or disproved. Most of the early food vendors were lodges and clubs and food did not get the publicity it does today. The oldest reference I’ve seen to MacPherson’s is from the fifth fair.
A Sept. 28, 1926 story in the Pomona Progress about the fair’s food purveyors that year cites “MacPherson of Long Beach and his famous ice cream waffles” among “the prominent concerns maintaining booths in the main tent.”
The tradition of MacPherson’s in Pomona came about by sheer chance.
Roy “Scotty” MacPherson, the story goes, was at the first fair in 1922 to show fruit from his La Habra citrus grove. When fair organizers learned he had a restaurant in Long Beach, they asked if he’d like to sell food too.
“He said sure,” relates great-grandson Schuyler MacPherson, who’s 48.
MacPherson’s items the first year: hamburgers, pickled eggs and ice cream. Um, is that cheaper if I get it as a combo?
Scotty MacPherson kept coming back for subsequent fairs. By the late 1930s, his sons Bob and Chet were operating the stand. Hamburgers fell by the wayside, as did pickled eggs.
Ice cream stuck around, as did the MacPhersons.
“The ’40s to the ’60s was the heyday,” Schuyler says. MacPherson’s had stands scattered around the fairgrounds, operated by various branches of the family. They all had separate careers but would converge on Pomona, rent a house and work the fair.
Schuyler was born in 1973.
“I remember being in first grade, sitting on a stool and taking people’s money,” he recalls. “Nobody thought anything then about handing a 6-year-old a $20. Bars were 60 cents. I was making change.”
He can remember when the unthinkable occurred and the ice cream bar went up to $1. They’re now $6.
His mother, Margaret, deserves the most credit for keeping MacPherson’s afloat. (Root beer afloat?) She was behind the counter for a half-century.
She started selling ice cream there in the 1950s when she and her future husband, Ray, were dating. They divorced in the 1970s. Ray kept one stand, in the Food Circle. Margaret had the other, in an Expo Hall.
When Ray sold his, its name changed. Thus, the only remaining MacPherson’s stand was owned by his ex-wife, who ran it another quarter-century. When she died in 2009 at age 74, Schuyler took it over.
“My mom, who had married into it, was the last one left,” Schuyler says, with some amazement. “It wasn’t her family that started it.”
This may explain my unusual encounter with Margaret MacPherson in 2002, when the stand, and the fair, turned 80. I introduced myself to request an interview for what I assumed would be a heartwarming feature story.
She snapped at me that she didn’t have time for an interview and didn’t want to be in the newspaper.
Startled, I offered to return at a more convenient time.
“I have no interest in a story,” she replied. “All right? I think I’ve made myself clear. Goodbye.”
That awkward encounter got a few paragraphs in my column and happens to be in my new book about the fair. Schuyler bought a copy from me a week earlier and cheerfully invited me to come see him during the run of the fair.
Days later, with some trepidation, I take him up on the offer. He’s relaxed and friendly. Midway through our chat, I decide to risk telling him about how his mother had ordered me to get lost.
He bursts out laughing.
“I can see my mom doing that,” he says.
As a fifth-grade teacher, she was “very direct,” and because her divorce was so unpleasant, her son speculates, “maybe she didn’t want to talk about his side of the family.”
That makes perfect sense to me in retrospect. I’d assumed she was a direct descendant. Who’d want to talk about 80 years of an ex-husband’s relatives?
Schuyler says he now understands why he’d never seen me at the counter before, despite my long interest in the fair. “I was scared straight,” I tell him.
His mother might have been happier, he says, if the stand hadn’t had her ex-husband’s name attached and all the baggage that came with it. And yet she persevered. And that’s the only reason MacPherson’s Ice Cream still exists.
“Life is funny. The person that you thought would be the death of the place is the one who saved it,” Schuyler says.
He is the only MacPherson now involved in MacPherson’s Ice Cream, the business started by his great-grandfather back when Warren Harding was president.
He doesn’t take that legacy lightly.
“You don’t want to be the one who let it die, that’s for sure,” he says.
Reflecting MacPherson’s nostalgic appeal, the stand’s walls are decorated by 1950s-made neon signs, fashioned by Williams Sign Co. of Pomona. One reads “MacPherson’s Custom-Built Ice Cream Bars.” Another says “Soft Serve” (with a neon cone) and a third says “Root Beer Floats” (with a glowing mug and straw).
Soft serve cones, sundaes, root beer floats and a recent item, Dole Whip floats, make up the menu. Ice cream waffles, the famous 1926 item, are long gone (as are pickled eggs).
An ice cream bar with peanuts may be the longest-lived item on the menu.
“The bars are traditional. If you’re looking for an old taste of the fair,” MacPherson says, “this is it.”
David Allen sets the bar low Friday, Sunday and Wednesday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.