Ice Cream, Penn State,
and My Grandpap

'The Hendersons will dance and sing | As Mr. Kite flys through the ring. Don't be late.' -- Lennon and McCartney

I'm not going to try to tell you that my grandfather, John G. Henderson, invented ice cream or the ice cream cone. I am going to make the claim that in a wee small way my grandfather had a role in the evolution of ice cream as it emerged to sit atop the ice cream cone.

A Short History of Ice Cream

Since ice cream is one of the few foods that humans eat in its frozen state, it has long captured the fancy and imagination of humankind. The magic of ice cream actually comes in its melting. Melting is necessary, chemically, to release the flavors of ice cream, and "release" is hardly the right word, since the chemical reaction on the taste buds is more of an explosion. There is much misinformation and disputed claims about the history of ice cream. The old story that Marco Polo saw ice cream being made in China back in 1300 has been disputed. In histories of ice cream, Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and Persians are often noted, but missing from any of their treats was cream or any milk product. They may have enjoyed flavored snow or ices or even sorbets, but not ice cream. Who came up the idea of adding cream is unknown, but by 1600, the process of freezing milk or cream through through conduction through a process of mixing salt with ice was being practised in Italy, but only for members of the royalty. Remaining a secret or at least exclusive treat to the high nobility, it quickly spread to other parts of Europe. The story of its introduction to England involves the soon-to-be-beheaded King Charles I, a member of the notorious Medici family, bribery, skulduggery, and a chef who may have been French or Italian.

In the fourth edition of The Art of Cookery, published in London in 1751, Hannah Glasse may have been one of the first to publicly reveal the recipe for "ice-cream" and the trick of making it by setting a smaller container with the sweetened cream mixture in a larger container filled with ice and salt. Hanna Glasse's Art of Cookery,

The story that Dolley Madison popularized ice cream in America when she served it at her husband's Second Inaugural Ball in 1813 is apparently true, but the story that she learned about this special dessert from a freed black caterer known as Aunt Sallie Shadd is more suspect. Earlier first ladies are also recorded as serving a delicacy made from frozen cream, sugar, and fruit.

Found on some lists of inventors is Augustus Jackson, a confectionary dealer who has been called "the Father of Ice Cream." He was instrumental in making ice cream a treat for the masses. He became one of the wealthiest African Americans in the country after he left this job as a White House cook in the late 1820s and begain to sell ice cream to the people of Philadelphia. However, he has been inaccurately credited with coming up with the idea of using a salt and ice brine in the making of ice cream, since that idea was already centuries old.

A New Jersey resident Nancy Johnson was awarded a patent in 1843 for an artifical freezer that was a modified churn with hand crank that could keep the ice cream mixture agitated and aerated as it came to a freezing point while sitting in bucket filled with a salt and ice brine. This innovation produced a smooth and creamy product, instead of one with chunks and ice crystals. Her hand-cranked ice cream freezer has been improved upon, motorized, and expanded in scale, but her principle for making ice cream has remained unchanged for more than a hundred and fifty years.

the author licking a coneJacob Fussell of Baltimore appears to be properly honored as the “father of the wholesale ice cream industry,” since he built the first ice cream factory as early as 1851. He shipped his ice cream by rail to Washington, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. Even with that volume, his ice cream factory consisted of a room full of manually operated ice cream churns. The size of his enterprise was an exception, since until after the Civil War, ice cream was made almost exclusively in small quantities. Proprietors of drug stores, saloons, ice cream parlors, and dairy wagons all relied on the hand-churning by family members or employees. Only after 1875, with the invention of mechanical refrigeration and the refrigerated box car, were dairy operations and ice cream plants able to modernize and expand on a large scale.

Ithaca, New York, has a place in the history of ice cream with the earliest documented claim to the ice cream sundae. In 1892 a drug store owner and a Unitarian minister concocted the treat after church one summer day using the ingredients for a strawberry ice cream soda, minus the soda water, which could not be sold on the Sabbath. As for the ice cream cone, whether or not it was invented at or for the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904, it does seem certain that the ice cream cone became firmly established in American culture because of the fair.

Another important development in the history of ice cream was the introduction of the Ice Cream Short Course at Penn State. It was first taught in 1892 as a component of a larger dairy course, but has been taught as its own separate course since 1925. It is the oldest educational program dealing with the science and technology of ice cream, and when it was offered in Januarys apart from the regular curriculum and open to non-Penn State students, it became the first continuing education course offered in the United States. Included among its alums are Ben and Jerry, Jeff Kostick of Cayuga Lake Creamery (who can be seen in the picture of me licking an ice cream cone), and my grandfather.

My Grandpap

Even those of us who knew and loved John Gordon Henderson, Sr., may not immediately associate him with ice cream. He was a dairy farmer in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, his entire life and Sunday school teacher for at least 75 of his 91 years. He was born in 1887 and died in 1978. Some of us remember him for the puzzles he loved to work on in his retirement days and the stories and jokes he loved to tell. Some of my cousins remember a different side of him back on the farm as a taskmaster who had a stubborn streak. My dad tells me he earned a reputation for being especially clever at assembling farm machinery after it arrived in separate pieces in huge crates. However, many have also recalled stories illustrating what an awful driver he was. On the day he bought his first automobile, forgetting how to put on the brake, when he arrived at home he cried out "Whoa!" as he crashed the vehicle into barn. Sixty years later, when he only drove the car to visit a neighbor who lived half a mile down the road, his reputation had not improved. He was known to lure visiting grandchildren to go for a ride in the car to help him get some eggs. When the grandchildren explained to him that their parents had been forbidden them to ride in the car when he was driving, he would tell them since he was their parent's parent, he overruled them. Grandpap was an avid baseball fan who supported the Pittsburgh Pirates through good years and bad. He said what he liked about baseball was that it gave him an opportunity to talk to people young and old, because that was something they all had in common. He was also a civil war buff who not only learned about the war from books but by talking to veterans, including the uncle for whom he was named. When he came back from the 75th anniversary of Gettysburg festivities, he complained proudly that he knew more about the battle than the guide who had led his tour.

But ice cream? When Grandpap was born, ice cream was well known, but it was after he was born that the ice cream cone was invented. When he started at Penn State, my grandfather probably had no higher ambition than to become the best dairy farmer he could be. He probably little suspected much research on ice cream was then going on at Penn State, but he ended up working with the professor connected to the Penn State Creamery who was doing all sorts of experiments on the formulation of the frozen dairy product.

Grandpap almost didn't get to college. For that era, that hardly sounds unusual, but John, though born into a large farming family, had parents who insisted that all their children get some higher education. Most of his siblings attended Indiana Normal School (which many years later evolved into Indiana University of Pennsylvania). Two went to Westminster College; two went to Valparaiso College in the state of Indiana; and John and his brother Harry went in turn to Penn State. Sending nine children to college took a commitment back then, but their parents, for different reasons, insisted upon it. Their mother, Jennie Telford Henderson, came from a family where college was part of the family's tradition, since she was the daughter of a preacher and the sister of a judge. Their father, Joseph Henry Henderson, vowed when he got married to prove that innovative and scientific farming was as much a profession as the church or the law. The highest elevation in Indiana County is on the Henderson farm, and on its steeper slopes John followed strip farming methods to prevent erosion. He built a lime kiln, so he could convert his own rock to usable lime fertilizer. He formed a cooperative with his neighbors to build and operate a creamery so they could all lift themselves above subsistence farming. He was also secretary of the board of the Elders Ridge Academy, a private high school that was one of the first of its kind in Western Pennsylvania to teach classical studies and prepare young men and women for college. The reason my grandfather almost didn't get to college was because of an incident that occurred when he was in the eighth grade of the local rural school. The details of the fight may provide some insight into my grandfather's character. John had a classmate who was big, awkward, and easily riled. He was regularly goaded by many of the boys in the class, and got into lots of fights and loads of trouble. The teacher finally warned him that if he got into any more fights he would be expelled. Unfortunately, some of the class bullies took that as a challenge and at the next recess started teasing him even more mercilessly. The boy couldn't control himself and started fighting. The teacher was not quick enough to see how the fight got started, but he fully observed that the boy had ignored his warning. When the teacher started to expel the boy, John stood up for his friend. Unfortunately, his defense turned into sharp words, and sharp words turned into an altercation in which John knocked the teacher down. Not waiting to be officially expelled, John went home. His father's reaction was not to fuss or discipline his son. Instead he put him to work. John told his children later that he never worked harder in his life than he did the next few weeks, but he was too stubborn to go back to face the teacher. Finally, one morning, his father told him to dress in his good clothes. He hitched up the wagon and drove him to the Elder's Ridge Academy. John at Penn StateAlthough it was now mid-semester and John had not completed the eighth grade, he was now placed in the ninth grade. Although it was tough at first, John completed the year and went on to graduate from Elders Ridge Academy. Since he was interested in becoming a farmer, he applied and was accepted into the agricultural program at Penn State.

John and his brother Harry went to Penn State in succession. John took the two-year agricultural course. Harry, who was two years younger, started the same program the year after his older brother finished. Harry concentrated his studies at Professor Henry Prentiss Armsby's animal nutrition institute. Henry Armsby was an agricultural chemist and a leading authority on animal feeding and nutrition. He had been dean of the School of Agriculture until 1907 when he established Penn State's Institute of Animal Nutrition. As director of the institute, he was able to commit much more of his time to research. It was at the nutrition institute that Harry really found his niche. After two years, the brothers made a decision that John was better at farming and Harry better at schoolwork, so it was Harry who continued his studies and completed the four-year program at Penn State. Harry then went on to get his masters at Penn State and doctorate in Dairy Science at the University of Minnesota. Harry took a teaching job at the University of West Virginia and became the head the dairy department. In 1928, he was selected by his former Penn State professor Carl W Larson to write the revised second edition of the standard college textbook on dairy nutrition, Dairy Cattle Feeding and Management, which Larson had co-written with another Penn State professor, Fred S Putney, in 1917. Harry revised the text again in 1938 and 1954. He turned over the principal authorship to a colleague for the 1966 edition.

(John must have worn a uniform much of his time at Penn State. Students were required to wear a white suit and cap while working in the State College creamery, and every male student was required to take two years of a military course. John played baseball at the club level, so that may have required him to wear a third uniform.)

"Boys, we have invented the ice cream cone."

When John started at Penn State in the fall of 1912, he was assigned as a roommate, J. I. Henderson. The two Hendersons were not related, but they became close friends. The two roomed together for the full two years, and they pooled their resources together. Since they were both students in the Department of Dairy Husbandry, they could bring home all the milk and cream they wanted. A favorite recipe was oyster stew. One reason it was a favorite was that it cost them almost nothing, since they could barter some of the free milk for the oysters. The two even found jobs together. One of their jobs was as research assistants to the same professor.

While at Penn State, John started a notebook that he added to and consulted even after forty years of farming. In Grandpap's notebook, he recorded what he thought was an important event. Alas, I have never seen that notebook and do not know if it still exists. I am not sure how much detail was included, and for which professor the two Hendersons were assisting. Whether or not it was an important moment in the history of ice cream is a matter of interpretation. It should be remembered, however, that in 1913, when the notation was recorded, the ice cream cone was in its infancy, and it was a rare occurrence when the ice cream would last till the end of the cone without making a mess, a terrible mess. It was that challenge that led Penn State researchers to experiment with emulsifiers, stabilizers, hydrogenation, and colloidal solutions. Emulsifiers and other stabilizers are the additives in ice cream that create smoothness, add viscosity, help hold flavor, and extend the quality of the ice cream in storage or shipping. They keep ice cream from becoming coarse or grainy or turning into ice crystals. For a long time the only emulsifier other than the cream itself was egg yolk. Gelatin, a highly processed animal product rendered from bones and animal skins and hides (horses' hooves, despite rumors to the contrary, are not commonly used), was the first and almost only ice cream stabilizer for much of its history. At the Penn State researchers were experimenting with various other potential emulsifiers, especially glycerides. They also studied the effects of other additives, such as arrowroot, gum extract, albumin, seaweed extract, and cornstarch. Similar efforts continue to this day at Penn State and elsewhere just to make the eating of an ice cream cone enjoyable from the first lick to the last bite.

One day as the two Hendersons were in the lab working as research assistants, the professor they were working with thought he had made a breakthrough. The details are now lost, and just what the professors and his assistants discovered is unknown to me, but according to my father it must have been something major, since John G. Henderson, my grandfather, recorded the professor as saying, "Boys, we have invented the ice cream cone."

Penn State and Guernsey Cattle

Until 1892 the cattle herd at Penn State consisted only of Guernseys. By the time John Henderson arrived on campus, most of the cows in the Penn State herd were still Guernseys, but Brown Swiss, Holsteins, Jerseys, and Ayrshires had been added. Back then, Holsteins were not the dominant breed of cattle. Although Holsteins produce more milk than other breeds, their milk fat content is low. These days, when one-percent and two-percent milk outsells regular milk, low fat milk is an asset, but when John was in school, it was a major liability. Low milk fat is not very good for making butter, cheese, and is especially poor for ice cream. Different states had different regulations, but in 1919, the National Association of Ice-Cream Manufacturers required that ice cream have not less than 18 per cent milk fat for pure ice cream and not less than 8 per cent when all ingredients, including eggs, fruit, chocolate, nuts, flavorings, and additives were factored in. Guernseys were a preferred breed, since Golden Guernsey milk was almost 50 percent higher in milk fat than the blue milk of the Holstein. Guernseys produced milk in much higher quantities than other high milk fat breeds, such as Jerseys. John remained loyal to Guernseys all of his life. There was a certain price to pay for my grandfather being a Guernsey farmer who was part of a family known for its teasing humor when it came to his choice for a bride. His brothers were only the first of many who commented on John being a Guernsey farmer but marrying a Holstein – that was my grandmother's maiden name, although it was pronounced Hol'-stən.

John at Penn StateHis father, my great grandfather, Joseph Henry Henderson, had already acquired Guernseys, but John improved upon his father by investing in purebred Guernseys with pedigrees. In fact, he preferred that all of his livestock come from purebred stock, whether it was cattle or hogs. One of his first purchases after he took over the family farm was a cow named Queenie (Note: My father also talked about a special cow named Queen Vashti. I'm not sure if Queenie was Queen Vashti's pet name or if they were two different cows.). Queenie's mother was born on the Isle of Guernsey, and it was the county agent, a Penn Stater, who discovered she was available after the original purchaser died before the sale. Although he had never paid so much money for a cow, Queenie proved her worth. She was very productive and became the mother of nine very productive daughters who became central to the development of the herd.

One advantage of having purebred Guernseys with good reputations was that in the era before artificial insemination, many of the bull calves could be sold for a good price for breeding purposes instead of for the price of their veal. When the Golden Guernsey Dairy Cooperative formed to sell milk to the Otto Milk Company in Pittsburgh, John was one of the first members. It required an investment, since the farm and its milking equipment had to meet new specifications for efficiency and sanitation. A well had to be drilled and water fountains installed for a new water supply for the cows. Manure had to be removed every day and specially handled. Since Golden Guernsey milk could fetch a better price than other milk, the investment and new methods and equipment paid for themselves.

(In the picture, the boy riding the bovine beast is my Uncle Bob. My father is to the right. Grandpap is on the left. The other person is Lawrence Frailey, who was something more than a hired hand, since he and his sister lived with the family.).


Penn State had many important influences on my grandfather's farming career. After he graduated, he supplemented the notebook with materials he received from Penn State Cooperative Extension and used them to try several farming innovations. When Penn State advocated using chemical herbicides, John was quite willing to apply them. During the depression, he cooperated with the Civilian Conservation Corps to have tiles put in his fields for better drainage. From a course he took with Elizabeth B. Meek, a professor of bacteriology, he learned about bacterial contamination and followed hygenic practices before they were required by government regulation.The Henderson Family with George McCormick

Within a few months after he finished the two-year program, John got married. Since his father had died in 1913 and his older brothers were established in other careers (one in railroads in Washington State and the other as a banker elsewhere in Indiana County), John was able to take over the family farm. Back on the farm, John G. Henderson put his ice cream research and training to use. He bought a five-gallon ice cream freezer. Through the 1920s, through the Depression, and into the 1940s, one of his regular sources of income was selling ice cream. He specialized in selling ice cream cones at picnics, church socials, reunions, and other social gatherings all around the area. His wife Kate had sent off for a form to use in making the cones, and the two of them experimented with various recipes. The enterprise was so successful that he hired Walter Patterson, the son of a cousin, to load up the ice cream on the wagon on hot summer days and take it into Iselin, the coal-mining town a couple miles away. At age 94, my dad still remembered that when he was six or seven years old as a treat he would be allowed to go along, ride in the wagon, and ring the bell.

(In the family picture are my grandparents and my father when he was three years old. The baby is my Aunt Mitch. The tall young man is George McCormick. The date of the picture is 1918.)


Thanks to my cousin Robin Rosselet for sharing the portraits of my grandparents and the picture of the Henderson farm.
This page was created in 2010 by John R. Henderson (jrhenderson9 @ It was last modified on September 14, 2015.