Summer in Arkansas means long, hot days and starry nights. It is a time for kids staying up late chasing fireflies in their back yards and jumping into whatever puddle of water they can find to beat the heat. It also means ice cream. And in Arkansas, the Yarnell’s Ice Cream Company has been feeding that tradition for eight decades.
Ice cream exploded in popularity in the latter half of the 1800s after the hand crank ice cream machine was developed, allowing people to make the dessert with a combination of ice, rock salt, and various creams. However, refrigeration technology was still primitive and ice was often hard to come by. Ice cream melted very quickly and households had no way to store or preserve it in summer.
Into the early twentieth century, ice was made in warehouses and shipped to customers on a daily basis. So with the lack of refrigerated cars or trains, ice and ice cream could only be shipped to small geographic areas.
By the 1920s, there were dozens of local ice cream manufacturers in Arkansas, including the Grisham Ice Cream Co. in Searcy. The industry was very competitive, and the investment in a refrigerated truck allowed Grisham to sell ice cream as far south as Lonoke, some 40 miles away. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, sales plummeted, and Grisham was forced to sell to another local manufacturer, Southwest Dairy Products, which had operations across Arkansas. Times were desperate, and few people were able to afford a luxury as simple as ice cream as unemployment and foreclosures rose. In turn, Southwest fell into bankruptcy by 1932.
A former Grisham salesman, Ray Yarnell, looked at the failure and saw an opportunity. Yarnell had become a manager at Southwest Dairy’s Hot Springs and Camden plants and came to know the internal operations of the ice cream business intimately. Borrowing from his wife’s family, Yarnell bought what was left of Southwest in a foreclosure auction in 1932, starting the Yarnell’s Ice Cream Co.
The early years were still difficult. Yarnell did not draw a salary for the first year and continued to borrow heavily to keep his business alive. He poured everything into the business while it tottered on the edge of collapse. His wife, Hallie, served as a bookkeeper, and son Albert sold ice cream from bicycle routes across Searcy. By the end of the 1930s, sales picked up enough that the company bought a refrigerated truck. Sales slowly increased through the end of the Great Depression and World War II. In 1951, the younger Yarnell helped oversee a major expansion of company operations in Searcy. By 1970, sales hit the $1 million mark. When Ray Yarnell died in 1974, his company was the success he dreamed it would be and the company had become a Searcy legend.
Albert Yarnell would take over the company. Eventually, Yarnell’s had sales in six states and was the onlyArkansas ice cream producer left. By 2011, Yarnell’s faced serious problems as dairy and energy costs rose and sales fell. The company filed for bankruptcy and shut down operations, prompting Yarnell’s fans across Arkansas to hoard the remaining stocks they found at stores. Several months later, Schulze and Burch Biscuit Co., bought the Yarnell’s assets for $1.3 million, reopening the next year, just in time for the summer ice cream season.