SUNDERLAND — It took 14 years and a lot of driving, but the makers of Wilcox Ice Cream — known as Vermont's "original" ice cream — are back producing in the neighborhood.
On Friday, Jan. 8, the first batch of ice cream made locally since a catastrophic fire in 2001 which destroyed the manufacturing and distribution facility was made in a new 12,500 square-foot building in an industrial park off of South Road which was the former home of K&E Plastics.
It marked the closing of a long circle which began on May 7, 2001, when the fire claimed the production facility and the family farming operation on the Wilcox property on Route 7A south of Manchester where the family had produced its well-known ice cream. The massive setback occurred only a week after Craig and Christina Wilcox, the fifth generation of family members involved in the business had formed a new corporation to continue the ice cream and specialty foods operation which their father, Howard Wilcox, had more than doubled over the previous 30 years, in conjunction with his brother, Gerald Wilcox, who operated the farm.
But rather than roll over and call it quits, the Wilcoxes rolled up their sleeves and got back to work, producing their ice cream in four different locations in the intervening years, driving to Greenfield, Mass., and for a while to Gloversville, N.Y., to produce it, putting in long 20-hour days between traveling, producing and loading trucks each week to keep things going.
Along the way, they also expanded into distributing and re-selling other specialty foods, as well as buying a bakery business.
"That's kind of how we grew because we were limited to production one day a week and we couldn't grow Wilcox anymore and it wasn't physically possible to do more than one 20-hour day a week," said Christina Wilcox, the vice-president of Wilcox Ice Cream. "We focused our direction on filling our trucks with frozen product that could go out the door and meet our customer's needs."
But now with a new plant of their own and a team of 10 employees, the famed ice cream will be rolling out the door from a local building again. Last week, they began with making batches of french vanilla, fudge ripple, cookies and cream and a few other flavors, as they ramp up to a full production mode which will amount to 1,600 gallons of ice cream per production day.
A base white ice cream mix, and a chocolate mix, is made to the family's recipe by the St. Albans Creamery in St. Albans, Vt., and shipped down where it is pumped into a flavoring vat, then flavored and processed through a machine that adds in additional ingredients such as fruit or nuts, Wilcox said during a tour of the new plant.
A new ice cream machine — actually an updated version of an older, pre-computerized technology machine, but one they were all familiar with — purchased via an online auction, is capable of producing 300 gallons of ice cream per hour — twice the rate at what they used to. Howard Wilcox flavors every gallon and Christina Wilcox packs them all by hand. Craig Wilcox heads up all the distribution.
"The beauty of this machine and having it run faster is that even if I decide to stay with hand packed product, this machine has the capacity for a whole other production line," she said.
When fully up to speed, they hope to make ice cream five days a week, and may "co-package" for other companies now, a turnaround from the days when they were considered co-packagers when they worked out of the other, far-flung facilities.
The history of the Wilcox family's dairy and ice cream past stretches back to 1879, when the first invoice was received by E.A. Wilcox, then based on a farm in Sandgate, from the Equinox Hotel. After moving to a farm on River Road in Manchester Village in 1892, his son, E.E. Wilcox, bought the farm on what is now Route 7A in 1902.
In 1928, Howard "Dutch" Wilcox and his brother Roger, sons of E.E. Wilcox, started making ice cream in Manchester Village, harvesting ice from Equinox Pond. They stored the ice over the summer and the production was a forerunner of today's "just-in-time" delivery — since refrigeration technology was in its infancy back then, the ice cream was made not long before it was served. Over the 1930s, refrigeration techniques improved, as the process evolved from small batch freezers to continuous freezers.
In the mid-1960, Howard's two sons entered the business, with Howard A. Wilcox focused on the ice cream part and Gerald on the dairy farm. The business expanded with distribution routes through Vermont and three neighboring states.
All of which seemed to hit a wall when the fire gutted their facility, but that was only the start of a new chapter, Christina Wilcox said.
"We pride ourselves on being a network for other Vermont companies that need their stuff delivered from point A to point B, This project," she said, referring to the new building they moved into last October and began refurbishing for their needs last October, "has been going on for a couple of years."
Wilcox's employees, now known as "Team Sweet Street," has gone above and beyond to keep operations running smoothly while we have been under construction, she said.
The new building is located in a complex which houses several other small manufacturing operations and a facility belonging to Green Mountain Power, the electric utility, and is located on a lane that has been renamed "Sweet Street."
And in some ways an even larger circle has been closed, since that first invoice from the Equinox was mailed not to the original farm in Sandgate, but to a post office in Sunderland, because Sandgate didn't have a post office at the time (and still doesn't today).
"And now we're back in Sunderland," Christina Wilcox said.