There’s something of a feud, it seems, between Baltimore and New Orleans over which city has the oldest operating snowball stand in the country.
The ABC affiliate in New Orleans reported on the issue last summer. Reporter Christopher Leach said that “since the 1900s, New Orleans has been in a snowball fight with Baltimore about which city can lay claim to snowballs.”
Snowballs have been popular in both cities for well over a century. The treat’s rise coincides with the dawn of the ice trade, which brought ice to the masses during the summer, where it had once been strictly an upper-class amenity, enjoyed by people like Thomas Jefferson, a U.S. president and noted ice cream fan.
In the 19th century, much of the ice Baltimoreans consumed was imported from Maine’s Kennebec River, where it was harvested in the dead of winter, stored in ice houses, and packed with sawdust for the sailing voyage to Maryland and the rest of the world.
About half of it would have melted off by the time it reached the Baltimore market, according to an 1890 article in The Baltimore Sun describing the ice harvesting process.
Such ice could be a source of contamination. In 1898, The Sun reported that a Miss Ida May German, 14, of Aisquith Street, had died after eating four snowballs from an unnamed store. The author explained that “snowballs” were “flavored crushed ice.” A doctor attributed her death to meningitis.
By 1908, The Sun archives say, fully 90% of ice consumed in the city was human-made at factories such as the American Ice Company. Understandably, it was easier to transport ice from local plants like American Ice’s at 2100 West Franklin St.
Baltimore ice manufacturers still relied on Mother Nature. Companies made huge sheets of ice during the winter and stored it into the spring and summer months, when icemen delivered it door to door, hacking off giant blocks of up to 100 lbs. for customers to store in their iceboxes.
It was around 1918 that grocer Isaac Beckman sold hand-shaved snowballs from his shop on East Pratt Street, his son, David, told The Sun in 1968.
“My father took what appeared to be a big spoon with a sharp slot in it, drew it over a 50-pound cake of ice until he had filled a drinking glass with the shavings, and then dumped the mound upon a torn-off square of butcher paper,” David Beckman said.
An ounce or so of syrup went on top. Popular flavors back then included lemon, orange, strawberry and sarsaparilla, which tasted like root beer. David Beckman would add to that list with his own invention, blue-colored Sky-Lite. Today it’s one of Baltimore’s trademark flavors — along with egg custard.
It’s unclear when local snowball sellers began topping their confections with marshmallow cream, but the trend seems to go back nearly as far as snowballs themselves.
Mrs. Nicholas DeSantis told The Sun in 1973 that her former Highlandtown sweets shop, which opened in 1925, sold snowballs with “a generous glob of marshmallow cream on top” for 3 cents. That’s still the way many Baltimoreans prefer to eat their snowballs.
In New Orleans, snowball fans prefer a drizzle of condensed milk. That’s also the style in Hawaii as well as Japan, where “shave ice” as a snack dates back about 1,000 years.
While ice manufacturing and delivery died out with the dawn of refrigeration, the snowball has remained a summer staple. New stands rise all the time, from high-end snowball establishments like Ice Queens in Locust Point, to corner upstarts similar to lemonade stands. They carry on a culinary tradition decades in the making.
So which city, New Orleans or Baltimore, has the oldest currently operating stand?
Hansen’s Sno-Bliz opened in New Orleans in 1939 — making it Louisiana’s oldest.
But the owners of Walther Gardens say that “Meemaw” Sinsz actually established a snowball stand on the Northeast Baltimore property as far back as 1922.
“This is considered the oldest snowball stand in the United States,” said co-owner Paula Wittek, who with her brother, Matthew, runs both the Walther Gardens nursery, gift shop and snowball stand.
Each summer, Walther Gardens attracts throngs of customers ranging from youngsters to older folks who have been coming since they were kids themselves.
The snowball stand, like so many in Baltimore, began as a casual, off-the-books operation, and the Witteks say they don’t have any records from the early days. But Matthew Wittek said the 1922 date came from the family when he purchased the property from Phillip Sinsz, who died in 2019. And they still have a 1930s-era photo of Sinsz standing outside of the stand, which appears virtually unchanged today.
Next year, to mark the snowball stand’s 100th year in operation, the Witteks plan to celebrate the occasion by bringing back some of the Sinsz family’s original flavors, including homemade chocolate and egg custard with real eggs.