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Frozen In Time


The recipe for ice cream at Simmons General Store isn't written down, but Estie Simmons' descendants know it well enough: Keep it simple, keep it fresh, keep it secret. And go easy on the sugar.

"I'll never change it. I'd stop making it before I'd change," says Jean Neudecker, 50, the only grandchild of Estie Simmons. The future of the store is in Jean's hands, and she holds it close to her heart.

The rural crossroads called Snydersburg isn't even on most road maps. It's in northern Carroll County, at least 45 minutes away from Baltimore, but city people hear about Simmons. They'll make a trek for something homemade and old-fashioned, and they find it in a store that is part museum, part rural sanctuary.

The stuff that comes out of the machine in the basement of the store is American ice cream in its purest form. The names of the flavors are no more catchy than this: vanilla and chocolate. The family keeps one fruit flavor on hand at a time, usually something in season. The raspberries come from a Manchester farmer who sets aside a few rows just for them.

But the real showcase for Estie's recipe is the sublime, unadorned vanilla. Ice cream can get a lot fancier than this, but not better. Just enough sugar to carry the flavor of the vanilla bean without smothering it. Ice cream with the accent on cream. The texture is soft, and the temperature not so cold that it numbs your taste buds -- they won't want to miss anything. One lick, and you're hooked.

The confection is as comforting as the pastoral setting of the white clapboard house on Snydersburg Road just south of Hampstead. The store is attached to the Simmons family home. You can tell by the beige painted metal sign and the gas pump in front, although the store no longer sells gasoline.

Jean's parents, Phillip and Marjorie Nagle, have owned and operated the store since Marjorie's parents died in the 1960s. Mrs. Nagle still scoops most of the ice cream they sell, but her age and Mr. Nagle's health would make it impossible to keep the store going without help from Jean and her family.

Customers marvel that the store stays in business, as if it's too good to be true. When out-of-towners call nearby Cascade Lake, a swim resort, they always ask, "Is that ice cream place still open?" says Cascade owner Susanne Flynn.

"To have a place like this is really special," says frequent customer Nancy Hagert, 18, of Hampstead. "You wish you could keep it here forever and not ruin it."

Growth has not touched Snydersburg -- when you sit on the green benches of the small front porch to savor your ice cream, all you see across the street is a farm, a few houses and a church. But Ms. Hagert lives about three miles away, where suburban development has dotted the landscape with pastel ranchers.

Naomi Porterfield, 92, has been coming to Simmons since she moved to Hampstead in 1934. On a hot day this summer, she found her way back.

"Well, I haven't had any raspberry ice cream in so many years," Mrs. Porterfield says. "Do you have some?"

It was her lucky day. Mrs. Porterfield ordered two quarts. Between her and Mrs. Nagle stood the ice cream freezer, a large white chest with two hinged metal doors on top. Mrs. Nagle reached in with an aluminum paddle and packed the raspberry-studded ice cream into plastic quart containers. She mounded it high into a dome, stuck a sheet of waxed paper on top and wrapped it in yesterday's Carroll County Times. Then she did the same for the second quart.

Mrs. Nagle tells Mrs. Porterfield how a Baltimore family came by the day before. They said they'd read about the place four years ago, and had been looking for it ever since. They once stopped someone in Hampstead for directions, and the person said they'd never heard of Snydersburg.

"It must have been a new person," Mrs. Porterfield guesses.

"Hampstead's changed a lot. Hardly know anybody anymore," Mrs. Nagle says.

Back in the early 1920s, when everyone still knew everyone, four of the farm families living in Snydersburg took turns visiting each other on Saturday nights. When it was Estie Simmons' turn to be hostess, she made what she knew best: ice cream. She had the hand for it, adding just enough sugar so it didn't overtake the flavor of the rich cream skimmed by a nearby farmer. She developed a reputation.

"They said, 'Estie, why don't you open up and sell your ice cream?' " recalls Mrs. Nagle, now 78.

Estie and Joseph did just that. They built their house in 1923, and the store a few years later. Joe Simmons stocked the staples of the day: flour and sugar, muslin and oilcloth, hog feed and binder twine. But everyone knew the store for its ice cream. Joe and Estie made it together in the basement, in a wooden barrel filled with ice and rock salt. The ingredients went into a metal cylinder wedged into the ice. A belt they rigged up to a motor turned the paddle.

All through the years, the building's sign declared general store, as the property passed from Estie and Joe to their daughter and son-in-law, Philip.

But hardly anyone left without ice cream.

On a warm day, a large fan whirs at the far end of the one-room store. Breezes waft in through the front and back screen doors. Even on sunny days, it's cool and dark. The few products left on the wooden shelves lining the walls -- dishwashing liquid, Alka-Seltzer, Jell-O, Campbell's soup -- are mainly there to keep up appearances of a general store.

Mrs. Nagle keeps old things, such as a 30-year-old box of Borax, on the shelves purely for atmosphere. She keeps a 125-year-old cash register for the rare occasions when she has to ring up more than a few items. The ice cream sales are added up in her head, and set up for easy calculating: 75 cents a dip, $2.25 a quart, $5.75 a gallon. Tax is included, so there are no pennies to fuss with.

There's a small table with a few chairs inside the store, but most people take their ice cream outside. Sometimes 15 or 20 minutes go by without a single car breaking the view of the cornfield across the road.

Until just a few years ago, the Nagles' only child didn't give much thought to the future of the store. She had busied herself with raising three children and then baby sitting their children, all in the store and the house attached to it, where she and her husband, Carroll, still live with her parents.

"I lived here all my life. I was born in that house. You get tired of something. But then -- bingo -- it just happens. You just feel as though you want to keep going with it," Jean says.

"About two years ago, it happened. And it happened when I seen my father couldn't no longer do it, and all the responsibility was on me. Then it grows on you."

Mr. Nagle doesn't scoop the ice cream any more. Advancing Parkinson's disease was already slowing him down, and two years ago he conceded he just couldn't run the store alone.

He was once the heart and soul of Simmons, the man who threw a wry but friendly greeting to everyone who walked in, and maybe called someone a fool if he knew him well enough. He was there every day, and he still is, but he doesn't say much.

When his family realized he couldn't wait on customers, they also knew they couldn't take him out of the store. So while his wife or daughter minds the store, Mr. Nagle, now 79, sits on one of the long, wooden benches. Sometimes he's lucid, sometimes confused. He often walks around, stoops down to sweep his fingers across a wooden bench, as if he's holding a paintbrush.

"He wants to do this stuff," Mrs. Nagle says as she replaces the ice cream scoop in a stainless-steel well after serving a family. "But he gets back there and he doesn't know what to do."

Marjorie Simmons Nagle met her husband the way her daughter and granddaughter met their husbands: at the store. In the 1930s, Simmons was still the place in the village where farmers and their workers congregated. Young Marjorie had to go no farther than her front yard to meet young men. One of them was Philip Nagle. He had moved as a teen to nearby Boring, from Baltimore's Boston Street. He and his father hired themselves out to farmers.

The history of the Simmons family and most of the people who married into it can be told by standing outside the store and pointing to this house, that barn, the church up the road. "See that white building right there?" Carroll says from the back door of Simmons. "That's where I grew up."

One spring, he offered to come help the family pick strawberries for their ice cream.

"I was 15, and that was just an excuse to come down and see me," his wife says.

The Neudeckers' daughter, Cheryl, met her husband, Roger Mathis, in 1982, when a tornado blew the roof off the store. Roger had been staying with his sister in Snydersburg, and walked down the road to see the damage. He fell for the young woman waiting on customers amid the rubble.

Their three children are there all day in the summer and after school the rest of the year.

Simmons is a family business in every sense, the recipe passing from parent to child for three generations.

Carroll Neudecker is the chief ice cream maker now. He's always had a day job, delivering fuel oil for Walsh Field Supply Co. in Hampstead. But after dinner with his family on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Mr. Neudecker walks out the back and through a screen door into the basement. And there it is, the ice cream machine. It's 34 years old, about 5 feet tall, a stainless-steel 10-gallon drum set on its side on a pedestal. Jean believes it's only the second machine used since the store opened.

Carroll will make 160 gallons on a typical summer night. He pours in a milk-and-cream base made for them by a Lancaster, Pa., dairy, and then adds what Jean calls "our secret stuff." On cold winter days, it can take less than 10 minutes for a batch to freeze. But in the summer, it takes 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the weather. He starts with the vanilla batches, then makes chocolate, then fruit. Between each flavor, he washes down the machine.

When a batch is ready, Carroll pulls a lever and ribbons of ice cream, pulse out and into the tall aluminum cylinders, ready for scooping upstairs.

Outside, in the field behind the store, a church softball league has games four nights a week in the summer. On ballgame nights, a line of kids and grown-ups snakes out the grocery store door. Between the players and spectators, about 35 gallons of ice cream will leave the store by the end of the game.

"I know if I was to take this ice cream to a big mall, it would sell," Jean says. "But more or less, it's just a hobby for Mom and Dad."

But Jean vows that the recipe wouldn't change and that the general store would stay open.

"I'd just keep it the way that it is," she says.

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