Sunday, June 03, 2001

The great banana split

Latrobe, Pa., and Wilmington both claim this sundae started in their town

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Maybe we should let this one alone.

        It's the case of two small towns — Wilmington, Ohio, and Latrobe, Pa. — that claim to be the birthplace of one of the oldest ice cream sundaes — the banana split.

        The town's split on who created the decadent dessert first. And to make it more sticky — even though residents of Wilmington and Latrobe have bragged about their homegrown treat for years — they say they've never heard of their rival's claim.

        Folks in Wilmington, about 50 miles northeast of Cincinnati in Clinton County, say restaurant owner Ernest Hazard created the banana split in the blustery winter of 1907. Business was slow, the story goes, so Mr. Hazard devised the sundae — made with a split banana, ice cream, fruit, chocolate toppings, whipped cream, crushed nuts and maraschino cherry — as a way to attract students from nearby Wilmington College.

        Many in Wilmington grew up hearing the story, and naturally assumed the banana split's home was their birthright. Dan Rodenfels always believed it, even though his grandfather — Mr. Hazard — died when he was young.

    What: Banana Split Festival
    When: 5-10 p.m. Friday and noon-10 p.m. Saturday.
    Where: J.W. Denver Williams Memorial Park, Wilmington
    Information: (877) 428-4748
    Miscellaneous: Banana split and other food booths, crafts, classic car cruise, games and free entertainment
        “It was what my mother (Roberta Hazard Rodenfels) told me,” says Mr. Rodenfels, publisher of the Logan Daily News, near Athens. “And she made me plenty of banana splits when I was a kid.”

        Proud of its banana split heritage, Wilmington began celebrating the birth of the sundae seven years ago with an annual festival in June. This year, Wilmington's Banana Split Festival will be Friday and Saturday in J.W. Denver Williams Memorial Park.

        “I do believe there is a bigger awareness of banana splits here,” says Mary Gibson, who owns Gibson's Goodies ice cream shop in Wilmington and provides ice cream for the festival. Last year, Ms. Gibson sold more than 2,000 banana splits during the two-day event.
Latrobe story predates Ohio's

       About 275 miles away in western Pennsylvania, the residents of Latrobe always have heard the story of how optometrist Dr. David Strickler invented the banana split at his downtown pharmacy. According to legend, Dr. Strickler was inspired while watching soda jerks work during a visit to Atlantic City, N.J. He came home to create the banana split in 1904 — three years before Mr. Hazard supposedly unveiled his sundae in Wilmington.

        Like Mr. Hazard, Dr. Strickler was motivated in part by marketing. He hoped his banana split would draw students from nearby St. Vincent College. It worked: The college students loved the sundae and spread word about it when they returned home, mostly on the East Coast. The banana split became so popular, Dr. Strickler asked a local glass company to custom-make a long, narrow dish to hold his ice cream creation.

        “We were the originators of the banana split,” declares Carl Mattioli, president of the Latrobe Historical Society.

        Mr. Mattioli also points out that the town of about 9,000 is the home of Rolling Rock Beer, Fred “Mr.” Rogers, and the first professional football game.

        “We should have the (Pro) Football Hall of Fame here, but people sat on their haunches too long and Canton (Ohio) got it,” Mr. Mattioli says.

        So you can bet the people of Latrobe don't want to give up their claims on the banana split, especially to an Ohio town.

        Latrobe takes its sundae history seriously — the town's Elks Club has a banana split on its official pin, and St. Vincent College uses the banana split story in its recruiting material. Latrobe doesn't hold a banana split festival like Wilmington does, but the town is planning an event for 2004, celebrating the split's 100th anniversary. Of course, Wilmington will mark the anniversary three years later.

        “I do believe we were first,” says Joe Greubel, owner of the Valley Dairy ice cream chain in Latrobe. “I knew Dr. Strickler. And I still regret not having my picture taken with him.”

        A more objective expert, Bryce Thomson, who lives in Eaton Rapids, Mich., and claims to be the “world's oldest soda jerk” at age 84, sides with Latrobe in the banana split dispute.

        “I have never heard about Wilmington's claim,” says Mr. Thomson, who has written the Sundae School Newsletter for the Ice Cream Retailers Association for 20 years. “Most historians agree Latrobe is the home of the banana split.”

        But Wilmington isn't backing down.

        “Our research indicates that Wilmington remains the birthplace of the banana split as we know it today,” says Debbie Stamper of the Clinton County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

        Since both alleged creators have long since died, their respective businesses have closed and no living relatives can make undisputed claims, mysteries surrounding the birth of the banana split will continue. Bananas became popular in the United States around the turn of the 20th century, but how could two men create two such unusual sundaes that looked so much alike?

        To make things more intriguing, a published report documents the introduction of something called the “banana split” in 1905 by a department store soda jerk at a convention of the National Association of Retail Druggists in Boston. Did the soda jerk learn to concoct the banana split from Dr. Strickler, or did Dr. Strickler learn from him and then fudge the date of his creation? Did Mr. Hazard attend the same convention and return home to Wilmington to “invent” the banana split two years later?

        “Who knows?” says his grandson, Mr. Rodenfels. “And who cares?”

Classic Banana Split

        1 banana, peeled and split lengthwise
       1 scoop each: vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream
       Chocolate syrup
       Strawberry sauce
       Pineapple topping
       Crushed nuts
       Whipped cream
       Maraschino cherry

        Place banana halves in long dish. Place scoops of ice cream in center of dish on top of or in between banana halves. Top chocolate ice cream with chocolate syrup, strawberry ice cream with strawberry topping and vanilla ice cream with pineapple topping.

        Sprinkle crushed nuts on top of toppings and ice cream. Add whipped cream and garnish with cherry. Makes 1 banana split.

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