TJ's Ice Cream Comes To Rushmore

Jul 3, 2013

With July 4th upon us, many people are planning to attend special events or are preparing family outings to mark the country’s annual Independence Day celebration.But if you’re looking for something different to do on this day that’s closely associated with Thomas Jefferson, here’s a suggestion that involves “tasting” a piece of history.

How about a history quiz? I say “Declaration of Independence”, and you say “Thomas Jefferson.” I say “Mount Rushmore” and you say, “Thomas Jefferson.” I say “ice cream,” and you say….”Dairy Queen?”

No…Thomas Jefferson.

“The first known recipe written down in the United States is Thomas Jefferson’s hand-written recipe for vanilla ice cream., says Lloyd Shelton.

Who knew?

Stephanie Hanson serves TJ's Ice Cream at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Credit Photo by Wila Kent

Shelton, Food Service Manager at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial  did and spent the last two years making his dream to recreate Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream a reality. Lloyd invited me to sample some under the watchful eye of our third president and to hear the story behind its arrival at the national memorial.    

Driving into the heart of the Black Hills on a warm summer day I, of course, bring along "the family” – in this case, my wife and dog.

After all, ice cream is the original American summertime treat and it’s a well-known tradition in this country that once one person goes out for ice cream, everyone goes out for ice cream. 

The beautiful  weather and magnificent skies have brought crowds of visitors to Mount Rushmore. Generally, that’s a good thing; but not today.

Already a popular choice among ice cream enthusiasts, the supply of “Thomas Jefferson Ice Cream” has been seriously depleted. 

“Two days ago we were already out of it,” says Ice Cream Manager Stephanie Hanson So until Friday…that’s when our next shipment comes in.” 

Stephanie Hanson isn’t passing on good news to me. Not only was it a long drive here, but my historic taste buds are already overflowing with colonial and patriotic ardor. As Stephanie checks the store room for the ice cream that was supposed to be put aside for my arrival, Lloyd Shelton offers an overview of the path from idea to reality for what he’s calling “TJ’s Ice Cream”. 

“Well, about two years ago, we found an old sign from the old building, the North by Northwest building,” Shelton explains. ‘And it had this great saying on it. ‘Thomas Jefferson brought ice cream to America.’ Only problem is when we did a little research we found out that was wrong. Ice cream had already been in America for a couple of decades.” 

That would be a couple of decades prior to when some thought Jefferson brought the dessert back from France while serving there as U.S. ambassador.  But it was during this research that Lloyd discovered Thomas Jefferson did write down the first-known recipe in America for ice cream.

“We thought what a great idea, we’ll make a sign,” Shelton recalls. “So, we put a sign out on the Avenue of Flags just to tell people, you know, a little fact…a little information on history. And we notice something. People are out there…and, you know, we have this great, wonderful monument behind us.  And they’re standing there posing with the sign…with the Thomas Jefferson ice cream sign.”

TJ's Ice Cream comes to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Credit Photo by Wila Kent

Great news! Stephanie Hanson has just located the ice cream. As she instructs one of her front-line servers to get the Founding Father’s goods, Lloyd finishes his frozen dessert suspense tale. 

“And then people started asking us…‘Can we get the recipe?’ says Shelton. “So I start printing up the recipes downstairs on our printer. I’m running ink out of our printer. I go and have it made into a postcard, because we have so many people who want it. Well…they didn’t just want the postcard…they wanted the ice cream.”  

It took two years, but Lloyd finally found a willing partner to provide Mt. Rushmore’s visitors what they were demanding. Pride Dairy, of Bottineau, N.D. – a small-town business that usually doesn’t sell its products outside a 100 mile radius, is now recreating the first ice cream recipe in America. Pride spokesperson Jeff Beyer says it’s beyond historic. 

“I mean, to follow a recipe from Thomas Jefferson, and all of a sudden it’s going to Mount Rushmore,” says Beyer. “It’s just…it’s wonderful for us.” 

All right, let’s get to the real reason we’re here – and that’s the ice cream.  Visitors are already lining up for samples and, afterwards, purchases. I tell Lloyd I need to get a few quick comments. He assures me that there will be some ice cream left for me. 

“This is good,” a little girl tells me. 

“That IS really good,” agrees her mother.   

“Mmm, like homemade ice cream,” says dad.

“It’s good,” a teen boy comments, still swallowing the dessert. “Yeah.”

A little boy says, “It’s really good.”

His mother thinks, “It’s delicious.”

And a visiting Norwegian teen agrees, “I really like it. I thought it was good.”

The Bierschbach family from Washington state loved TJ’s Ice Cream
Credit Photo by Wila Kent

Girls, boys, teens, men and women…

My wife comments: “Very creamy…” 

Everyone seems to like TJ’s ice cream. 

Even my dog approves. But I still haven’t had any...

Until my wife thrusts a spoonful in my mouth.  I agree. It’s really good.

Thomas Jefferson Foundation research librarian Anna Berkes confirms the recipe used for TJ’s Ice Cream was, indeed, written down by Jefferson, but she notes that he didn’t create the recipe.

Berkes also says Jefferson is credited with increasing the popularity of the dessert by serving it at state dinners during his administration. And that’s a tradition Americans can add to their Independence Day celebrations - the freedom to eat ice cream.