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‘Doc’ Davis ice cream stand prompts memories of days past


PEPPERELL — The late Dr. Frederick A. “Doc” Davis might never have expected to see the little Hollis Street building he constructed for selling ice cream, in 1939, still standing 69 years later. But by all accounts handed down by word of mouth, he’d have been quite pleased.

This spring, a prime “go to” ice cream spot celebrates its 30th year under the ownership of Rose and William “Billy” Graves and Rose’s brother, “Johnny” Dee.

There will be specials on the 30th of each month throughout the season, Rose promised.

“July is National Ice Cream Month and we’ll probably have the big celebration then,” she said, “probably cones at 1978 prices.”

The little ice cream stand is central to the Graves’ family history, for it was there that returning Vietnam veteran “Billy” won the heart of Rose Dee, who started working there at age 13. He began earning a business management degree from Lowell Tech while she became a registered nurse. Later they would buy the business in 1978.

As it was in the 1940s, the ice cream is made on site in a tiny basement room that no one seems to believe is there, Rose said.

Their ice cream has less whipped-in air than many commercially-made brands. Ingredients are added from recipes Graves acquired over the past 30 years. The couple’s eldest son, Phil, is in charge, making nine gallons per batch.

History-tellers say “Doc” Davis lived in a farm house behind the stand. He was Pepperell’s veterinarian, focusing mostly on farm animals, and he kept a few dairy cows. A jovial sort, he and his wife, Ethel, like to entertain townsfolk. Sometimes they’d show movies on the side of their house and on Saturdays the Littleton Farmer’s Swing Band would play “hillbilly” music.

“Doc” would serve fresh homemade ice cream, made with the cream from his own cows. It became so well-liked that he built the “Ice Cream House.”

The business was sold to Franklin Attridge in 1954. It was Attridge who hired Mill Street resident Rose, among others. The Graves and Dee bought the business from the Attridge estate.

“Back in the 70s there were no jobs. Bill figured I knew ice cream and we went from there,” Rose said.

Phil Graves is now 28 and his brother, Jonathan, is 26. Their sister, Sarah, was 2 when the Graves bought the business. Although Sarah grew up with ice cream, she opted for a hotel management career instead.

The Graves have hired generations of high-schoolers — children from the McDowell and Bagwell families particularly come to Rose’s mind — and she can recall mothers, daughters, sisters and cousins working there.

Ceiling beams are lined with pictures of Little Leaguers and P.A.T. hockey teams. Graves coached Little League for years and remains a high school hockey coach. He is also the Massachusetts hockey representative to the USA Hockey board of directors.

Rose is the eldest of seven Dee children. She is sixth generation Pepperellite.

Bill Graves has an older brother and younger sister. His grandfather purchased the historic Col. William Prescott homestead in the 1930s and was the first non-Prescott to own it. The couple resides there and are renovating it.

As it was since the ice cream stand was built, the parking lot is unpaved. The retail section is original. Rose has pieces of the original sign that she wants to resurrect.

“Back in the day we’d load all the kids in the back of a pickup truck and take them for ice cream. You can’t do that any more,” Rose said. “When I was in school, Lorden Hardware or here were the hang-outs. We’d go to Nashua or Whalom park (on dates). There used to be an island across the street where they’d park the (hot) cars. They’d cruise Mill to Main streets and around the block. Once in a while we still hold cruise nights.”

The one change in today’s ice cream is the requirement for pasteurization. The basic mix arrives in five-gallon bags which are emptied into the hopper atop “Doc” Davis’ 10-gallon Emery Thompson mixer. Both Rose and Bill have needed shoulder surgery from lifting the mix. Phil already has rotator cuff damage.

It takes three days to make enough ice cream to fully stock the stand. More is made each day, beginning with the lightest, like vanilla, then darker and darker into the chocolates. Nuts, cherries, chips and flavors are added as the machine forms the ice cream. Fruits are added last. The machine must be cleaned after each of those processes.

“Fran Stevens was running the stand for Mr. Attridge. She started showing me how to make ice cream. So I took the Penn State ice cream short course and began picking up recipes from salesmen,” Bill Graves said.

“Salesmen used to be ice cream makers for Brigham’s and Hood’s. I tweak (the recipes),” he said. “Good ice cream comes from good ingredients.”

Graves said commercial ice cream makers use large tanks and 50 percent “overrun” (50 percent air from the mixing process). “Doc” Davis specifies a 40 percent overrun which leads to a smoother, creamier product. Five gallons of liquid mix produces eight to nine gallons of ice cream. Yogurt is made in the same machine.

“This business is weather dependent. Last year it was cold right now and this year warmer, so we have an earlier rush,” Graves said. “Most people come in during springtime until July 4; the vacations and the start of school slow things down. But, you always have the true ice cream people.”

“The hardest part is making the ice cream,” Rose said. “We’re not changing the process. It wouldn’t be ‘Doc’ Davis if we did.”

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