If you want to make an old time San Josean’s eyes glisten, just ask them about the wonderful creameries that existed during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Perhaps it was the competition of so many excellent soda fountains, but San Jose was blessed with the best.
The most elegant was O’Brien’s, started as a candy store by Maurice O’Brien in 1868. Under the leadership of Maurice’s son Charlie, it grew from candy making to include a soda fountain, restaurant, and bakery, and was famed throughout the west. The San Jose Rotary Club’s first meeting place was in the O’Brien’s fountain in 1914. When it was moved to 223 S. First St. it became more expensive and more elaborate than any of the other soda fountains. It was a great place for the girls from Notre Dame High School to meet the boys from Bellarmine and Santa Clara University.
For an unforgettable ice cream sundae, milkshake or banana split, the Garden City Creamery was the place to go. Owner Axel Ravn hired San Jose State College athletes as his soda jerks, and they built unbelievably delicious sundaes, piled two- and three-scoops-of-ice-cream high, covered with syrup, topped with genuine whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. It was a challenge to eat and it was all held together with three vertical vanilla wafers—all for the grand sum of 15 cents. The Garden City, located at 76 E. Santa Clara St., advertised “we specialize in milk shakes,” and served them from brimming-full, stainless steel containers for 10 cents. A specialty of the house was Axel’s fresh banana shake.
Just east on Santa Clara Street at Seventh was George M. Smith’s Crystal Creamery. Most of the countermen were San Jose State or SJ High School students. The Crystal was famous for its wholesale manufacture of ice cream and also ice milk. Stan Bellow worked there before he entered the Marine Corps in 1942 and remembers that a machine-packed quart of ice milk cost 20 cents, machine-packed ice cream was 40 cents, and hand-packed, heaped-to-overflowing, bursting-at-the-seams ice cream was 60 cents.
On First Street, a block from O’Brien’s, was the San Jose Creamery, owned and operated by T.M. Waddington. Equally good fountain items were available, but one could also buy excellent chocolate candy, eggs, milk and butter. Waddington usually hired college women from San Jose State to run the marble counter. Ice cream tables and chairs of twisted wire and marble furnished the center of the large central serving area.
Other notable creameries were the Hester Dairy, owned by Martin Haas, at 295 San Carlos St., and the Holland Creamery run by Jack Allen, who went on to greater fame with his Paolo’s restaurants. The Forward Dairy had its own soda fountain, as did the American Dairy. Miss Brown ran the American Dairy retail operation and the dairy had its own cows east of the Oak Hill cemetery and delivered milk door-to-household-door.
In those days, if you had from 10 to 25 cents in your pocket, the San Jose creameries were a wonderful place to spend your money. Where can you get that kind of bargain these days?