One of the Minnesota State Fair's longest-running food vendors has turned off the ice cream machines for good.
Rainbow Ice Cream, which opened at the fair in 1929, is ending its run, along with the other stands in the Davis Concessions portfolio, including Lingonberry Ice Cream and Potato Man and Sweety. Equipment and ephemera, including vintage signage, were auctioned off this week.
"It's like selling the family farm," said Rainbow Ice Cream co-owner Maxine Davis, whose father Jim and uncle Barney founded the business. "Every August, everything stopped in our family and we all focused on the fair."
Only Hamline Church Dining Hall, which started in 1897, has been at the fair longer.
Rainbow Ice Cream and its sister concession stands last appeared at the fair in 2019, the business' 90th anniversary year. With the 2020 cancellation due to the coronavirus, 2021 was set to be a comeback year. But Greg Tetrault, co-owner and Davis' husband, was sick with a fast-moving cancer, and the family pulled out of the fair. Tetrault died Sept. 5.
"Family comes first, and we just thought, maybe this is time, and it is," Davis said. "We're very sad. Sad isn't even the word."
"The Davis family played an enormous role at the State Fair, and in some way touched nearly every fair visitor for almost a century," said Jerry Hammer, Minnesota State Fair general manager. "We're saddened by the loss of our good friend Greg Tetrault, but grateful for the joy that he and the Davis family brought to generations of fairgoers."
The Davis brothers launched a simple ice cream booth at a time when home freezers were in short supply, and going out for ice cream was an event. They offered just three flavors: strawberry, chocolate and vanilla.
"And then every night they noticed that one of the ice creams was low and another one wasn't, and they said, 'We should combine these,' " Maxine Davis recalled. They dyed the vanilla ice cream green. Swirled with the pink of the strawberry and the brown of the chocolate, Jim Davis named it Rainbow Ice Cream.
The family continued to innovate, long before extravagant new foods became a State Fair trend. Sno-cones arrived in the 1950s. On a trip to the New York World's Fair in 1964, Jim noticed long lines — in the rain, no less — for Belgian waffles, which at that time were a revelation in the United States.
"He said, 'Whatever that is, we're going to bring it to the Minnesota State Fair,' " Maxine Davis said. Jim even hired Belgian cooks to work at the stand. Maxine's sister, Lynn (also a co-owner), was taking French in high school, and was the only person who could communicate with the cooks, who operated large gas-powered waffle makers. Jim sold the waffles with fresh strawberries and whipped cream for $1 each, and they bombed.
"Those were the days when everything at the fair was probably a nickel or a quarter," Maxine Davis said. "They were too much money."
In the past 20 years, the inventions kept coming: Vanilla Rainbow with three different kinds of vanilla; Chocolate Rainbow with milk chocolate, dark chocolate and white chocolate. They added stands with new flavors such as lingonberry and candied bacon. In recent years, they adopted ice cream trends from around the world, bringing to the fair Thai rolled ice cream, and the Halo Cone and the Rainbow Cloud Roll, which both paired the ice cream with cotton candy.
A 'date magnet spot'
Potato Man and Sweety evolved from a baked potato stand that later became known for its sweet potato fries and other bright orange novelties.
"What started happening was every year everybody wanted something new," Davis said. "But the traditional rainbow is what a lot of people [who worked at the booths] sold."
And countless young people worked at those booths for generations.
"It was my first food job ever," said Patti Soskin, owner of Yum! Kitchen and Bakery. "We worked from 7 in the morning until midnight. I think it started my love of food service, to be honest. Bringing joy to people through food. Those were super happy days, selling ice cream."
Minnesota Monthly and WCCO radio contributor Sue Zelickson had many friends who worked for Rainbow Ice Cream. "It was a date magnet spot," she recalled. "Everyone wanted to work at their stands."
Jim Davis died in 1989, and Maxine, Lynn and Tetrault inherited the business.
For Maxine Davis, reflecting on Rainbow Ice Cream's long tenure brings up a childhood spent at the fair. "My memories, of course, go way back," she said. Images of carnival workers rolling in by train. Of old cars parked all over the fairgrounds, and hop-on hop-off buses that cost a nickel to ride.
Rainbow's last fair, two years ago, is remembered as a great one.
"The fair has become a little like Christmas," Maxine Davis said. "Whole families go off to the fair and have a protocol. They have to get this and get this and get this, and then they get the new things and split them. That was our goal: You want to make a great product that would bring people to your stand, and we did. It was a success."