Chocoholics, this column is for you.
It’s a big bite of yummy history: the origins of the Eskimo Pie ice cream bar and Russell Stover’s candy — two chocolate-covered treats with a strong Omaha connection.
It was July 31, 1921, when Christian Kent Nelson, formerly of Onawa, Iowa, found in Omaha a believer and financial angel — Stover — in his invention of a chocolate shell for ice cream that wouldn’t melt easily.
How did Nelson and Stover meet?
Nelson was in Omaha, broke.
He had been the second son born in a large family that immigrated from Denmark to Minnesota in 1893 when he was an infant. His father was a dairyman and an expert butter maker who moved to Moorhead, Iowa, 10 years later and opened a small creamery.
Chris Nelson graduated from Dana College in Blair in 1913 and from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1916. His first teaching job was for two years at Thedford, Nebraska, where he also was the high school principal.
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He was an Army private who served only three months before World War I ended. He lasted only three weeks rejoining his parents in upstate New York, where they had moved from Iowa, before becoming a food salesman in New England.
Soon Nelson was back in Iowa at Onawa, a larger town 20 miles from Moorhead, to start a small ice cream factory. To pay the bills, he taught math and coached at the high school for one year. He had two cool summers work against his balance sheet.
Instead of teaching again, he opened the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in the front of the factory building. Then came the day, as related by Nelson to a Kansas City Star features writer in 1922, when a boy asked for an ice cream sandwich.
“A what?” replied Nelson.
“Ice cream sandwich. You know, slice of ice cream with wafers on each side.”
Told it would cost a dime, the youth changed his mind. “Guess I’ll take one of those chocolate bars.”
“I can put chocolate cakes on your ice cream,” Nelson said.
“Nope. Chocolate bar’s all right,” the boy said before spending a nickel and tearing the tin foil off the candy.
The exchange perplexed Nelson, and triggered the inventor in him. Why didn’t the boy want the ice cream? Why did he choose chocolate? With a neighbor woman who invited him one night to make fudge, he experimented — starting with pouring a thin coat of paraffin over the ice cream, then pouring the warmed chocolate over it. It was against the pure food laws, he knew.
But several 10-pound slabs of chocolate for candy and several pounds of cocoa butter later, Nelson found his formula early in 1921.
In 1992, 81-year-old Merle Cutler of rural Whiting, Iowa, told the Sioux City Journal he was the first to eat an Eskimo Pie. His recollection was that a scoop of ice cream fell into the chocolate, Nelson ladled it out onto wax paper and Cutler ate it when it cooled.
The Kansas City Star story said Nelson began giving away samples, then selling it as the “I Scream” bar. The sweet tooths bought it every day. When, for some reason, he stopped selling it, Onawa was in an uproar.
Nelson knew he had to patent it. He approached eight businessmen, who all turned him down, while he was in the process of selling his business and moving to Omaha.
Prospect No. 9 was Russell Stover, a recent Omaha newcomer himself. He had been with the Irwin Candy Co. of Des Moines before it went bankrupt. The equipment was sold to Graham Ice Cream Co. at 1510 Jones St. Graham hired Stover as a manager and he and his wife, Clara, moved into a house at 2744 Titus Avenue near Miller Park.
Nelson made Stover a partner. Then it’s said Nelson spent hours in the Omaha Public Library compiling a list of hundreds of words relating to cold. The list came down to two — Eskimo and Icy-ette. Stover spun it to Eskimo Pie, since it was said he didn’t think “I Scream” could sell well.
Did Stover come up with the “Eskimo Pie” name on his own? Was it Clara Stover? Was it inspired by the phrase “He ought to be able to sell ice to Eskimos” that dates to at least 1914? Or had he been in Vetter’s Confectionery in Lafayette, Louisiana, for its “famous Eskimo Pie” (advertised in February 1921), or in Owensville, Missouri, for Hohenstreet’s Rexall Store and Ice Cream that advertised an Eskimo Pie in August 1921? Nor do we know whether those treats were akin to Nelson’s creation.
Even after the patent application was made in the name of Russell Stover Co. (it was granted in January 1922), Nelson was working in a downtown pool hall for $20 a week. If one believes John Hilton, interviewed on Christmas Eve 1921 about his friend from Onawa, Nelson had been in town for about a year and had been jobless, working on his idea, until another man from Onawa, Fred Zilliox, got him hired at the pool hall.
Des Moines was the first large city with Eskimo Pie mania. Nelson and Stover gave the first license to Hutchinson’s Purity Ice Cream and it was turning out the treats in October 1921, perhaps first at a football game. The Des Moines Tribune ordered 1,500 for its October children’s birthday party.
Sioux City and Davenport, Iowa, were next with licenses. Council Bluffs and Omaha by Thanksgiving Day. In Omaha, Fairmont Creamery and Harding Cream Co. were the first licensees. Quickly, Russell Stover Co. took up operations in the Mallers Building in Chicago, where Nelson and the Stovers moved. Eventually there were 1,350 companies making Eskimo Pies.
In those crazy early days, from the 5 cents royalty on a dozen bars, Nelson and Stover maybe were making $2,000 apiece a day when there were a million bars produced daily. But expenses were high, from newspaper and magazine ads to patent litigation from competitors. Imitators surfaced. Demand cooled. Stover sold his share to Chicago attorney Clem Wade in 1923 for $30,000. The next year, Nelson sold for a reported $50,000 to U.S. Foil, which was making the Eskimo Pie wrappers, and was associated with the new Eskimo Pie Corporation (Wade was its first attorney) for much of the rest of his life. He died in 1992 in California, three days before his 99th birthday.
Eskimo Pie became Edy’s Pie in 2021. Its owners rebranded it following their acknowledgement the name was offensive toward native Arctic communities.
Russell and Clara Stover moved to Denver and started over in 1923 with a home-based candy-making business that quickly spawned a factory and retail stores in 1925. Those were named Mrs. Stover’s Bungalows. Omaha’s first one was No. 9, at 302 S. 16th St. Lincoln had No. 8, at 1321 O St.
The Stovers incurred a second setback during the Great Depression when almost half of their 21 stores in seven states closed. It took nearly a decade to bounce back. In the interim, the company headquarters moved from Denver to Kansas City, Missouri.
From 1943 to 1980, Russell Stover Candies had a manufacturing plant in Lincoln at 201 N. Eighth St., in the Haymarket district.
Russell Stover died in 1954, Clara in 1975.
What would have happened without the Nelson-Stover partnership? No Eskimo Pie, for Nelson gives up on finding a backer? No Stover’s candy, for the Stovers stay in Omaha and he’s content running an ice-cream company?
Chocoholics are glad we never found out.
Stories of Omaha's history by Stu Pospisil
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