WILMINGTON — If you lived here in the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s, you probably know and love Semlers Ice Cream shop. Although Charles Semler passed in May 1980, Mrs. Helen Semler turned 100 on Valentine’s Day and remembers those times at the store with gladness and chuckles.
Semlers Ice Cream began in 1947 when Charles made a career change and, said Helen, “We decided to get involved in something we as a family could do.” They had one child, Charlie Jr., who started working at the shop in 1953 at the age of 13.
Semlers’ first location was where Pennsylvania Avenue meets A Street where they acquired an existing ice cream shop.
In the early 1950s, they moved to a new facility though in the same neighborhood on Ohio Street near Xenia Avenue (U.S. Route 68). Charlie notes Route 68 was a good boost to the business because the shop was visible from the federal highway and U.S. 68 was a route for weekend travel to Lake Cowan.
“We built it up until it was quite a place,” Helen chuckled, “a busy place,” she again chuckled.
There were 28 to 30 flavors of ice cream to choose from at any one time — Charles would switch things up, said his son.
Among the more popular flavors were vanilla and French vanilla, maple nut and black walnut, and lemon custard was a good seller, too.
Charlie said, “Myself, I liked peanut butter and then black raspberry and chocolate chip. I would alternate between those. But I hated licorice. I did not like licorice. I loved licorice candy, but I did not like the ice cream.”
Neither Helen nor her son can remember the exact year, but they had a fire when a compressor exploded one afternoon at the store.
Helen thinks son Charlie stayed home from school that day with a sore throat and then went to the store with her. About an hour before the compressor exploded, he was sitting on it, she remembers.
Helen said that when the blaze struck, “I remember I screamed, ‘Charles [Jr.] you go out that door,’ the side door, and I dashed for the other door.”
The explosion covered Helen with an oily substance, and she said if a flame had touched her, she would have gone up in flames “because I was just saturated, even my hair.”
Later, neighbors took her to one of their houses and got her cleaned up and washed off the best they could, she said. At the time, Charles Sr. worked at the Randall Company factory on Nelson Avenue so they called him.
Helen also remembers two school buses that occasionally would stop for ice cream, one of which was from Mount Pleasant. The school bus drivers, remembers Helen, were Marvin Peterson and Dan Gillam.
“They didn’t do it all the time; it was a treat they did,” Helen said.
“One day they both stopped. They had a pretty good load of young people,” she said.
One time a woman from Dayton on her way to spend the weekend at Cowan Lake State Park forgot her billfold on the counter and left.
“In it was a diamond Eastern Star pin,” said Helen. “She [the customer] said, ‘Well I knew you’d keep it for me,’ and so she didn’t stop back in until Sunday going back home to Dayton.
There were lots of regular customers from Xenia and the Dayton area, said Charlie. He once met, away from the store, an Eastman Chemical salesman who drove all over the area and the salesman said, “You’re the ice cream people.”
Both Helen and Charlie agree Sunday was a big day of the week for Semlers Ice Cream.
Charles Sr.’s recipes for the ice cream flavors were secret, kept inside a handwritten notebook. When the shop sold in the early 1980s, the secret recipes were part of the sale.
Because summer was the busy time of year, high school students on vacation were hired for extra help. Helen kept a record, and there were 67 students who worked as seasonal employees during the years they owned the store.
The Semlers are proud of the fact their shop supplied Clinton Memorial Hospital with ice cream for many years.
When the Cincinnati Bengals held summer training camp at Wilmington College, some of them would come to the store after practice, including running back Warren McVea, who was with the Bengals their expansion year of 1968.
Helen said the team had a curfew, and a player might call ahead and ask that a pint of the hand-dipped ice cream be ready so the player could quickly pay the money and go.
In the early days, a dip of ice cream cost 5 cents. Later it went up to 7 cents, and then was raised to 10 cents a dip.
“People just thought that was terrible,” Helen remarked.
Helen’s longevity may have something to do with her family genes. Her father lived to be 96 and she has a brother in Arkansas who’s 92.
Her tip for long life is: “Keep happy. Don’t just complain about the bad things. You can be happy about something. There’s always something to be happy about.” She also advised simply, “take care of yourself.”
In her interview on the occasion of turning 100 Helen said of Semlers Ice Cream shop, “Yes, I sure remember those days.”
Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768.