A Frozen Delight

Unsung Hero Sweetened the Northwest

By Rodger Nichols

The inventor of soft ice cream hailed from Massachusetts but called Oregon his home. Adobe stock photo by Beats

Although July was National Ice Cream Month, a case can be made in Oregon for the cool treat in August. The highest temperature officially recorded in the state came at 119 F on August 10, 1898, in Pendleton.

What may surprise Oregonians is that the state has made significant contributions to the frozen concoction. Conventional wisdom suggests 3 possible answers to the question, “Who invented soft ice cream?”

All of them are wrong.

The most outlandish is former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. When she died, several British newspapers eagerly noted the connection between soft ice cream and the Iron Lady. There is a connection, but it is a soft one.

An article in Bon Appetit magazine noted, “Before entering politics, Thatcher was an Oxford-trained chemist, and in the 1950s worked the lab where soft-serve ice cream was perfected. Her real accomplishment was developing an emulsifier that let manufacturers whip more air into the soft-serve formula.”

More plausible is the claim of John Fremont McCullough and his son Alex, who developed a formula in 1938.

The Siberrian sign west of Granada Theater in The Dalles, 1944. Photo courtesy of the Dalles Chronicle

Wikipedia reports, “They convinced friend and loyal customer Sherb Noble to offer the product in his ice cream store in Kankakee, Illinois. On the first day of sales, Noble sold more than 1,600 servings of the new dessert within two hours. He and the McCulloughs went on to open the first Dairy Queen store in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois.”

Today, Dairy Queen has 6,400 outlets in 27 countries. Better yet is the story of Tom Carvel. On Memorial Day weekend 1934, Tom’s ice cream truck broke down in Hartsdale, New York. He pulled into a parking lot and sold the beginning-to-melt ice cream to weekend drivers as they passed by. He realized he could sell as much from a fixed location if it was in a high-traffic area. Customers loved the partly melted ice cream he sold from the truck.

Tom rented that spot in the parking lot of a pottery store until he made enough money to buy the store, which became his first outlet. Today, there are 320 franchise Carvel Ice Cream stores, mostly in the Northeast United States.

But the real inventor tops them all.

Simon Corliss “Si” Berry was born in Randolph, Massachusetts, in 1892. He attended Stratton Business College in Boston and moved to Oregon in 1911. He worked for a bank, a railroad, and a gas company and sold Model T Ford cars before entering the restaurant business.

In 1931, Si developed a machine for producing soft ice cream. In 1932, he opened his first store at 10th and Washington streets in Portland. It featured his popular Siberrian Cream Frozen Treat.

The next year, he trademarked “Siberrian Cream,” with the unusual spelling coming from combining “Si” and “Berry.”

Si was one of the first to develop a franchise business, selling his machines and licensing his formula and trademark to eager operators. One of his machines is on display at the Oregon Historical Society Museum.

At its peak, there were 99 Siberrian shops in Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho, including one in The Dalles next to Granada Theater. Other stores appeared in Seattle, Astoria, Coos Bay, Corvallis, Eugene, and Grants Pass, among others.

Si’s stepdaughter, Janet Townsend, once said Si had an artistic side as well.

“He designed everything that had to do with the stores,” she said. “We had a black-and-white checker pattern on all the dishes, the cups, the saucers, and the Siberrian logo. The little black-footed ice cream dishes were manufactured especially for Dad.”

A Siberrian cup shows the company’s familiar checkerboard pattern on the rim. Photo courtesy of Restaurant Ware Collectors Network

Si had other distinctions. His son, C. Si Berry, told Oregonian columnist Phil Stanford in 1991, “Malcom Forbes once gave him an award for his unique creation of the word ‘climatized,’ meaning air-cooled.”

An article in The Oregonian from April 4, 1951, announced Si had been named a business analyst for the Office of Price Stabilization for Oregon, specializing in restaurant operations. The article says Si “would be charged with checking restaurant operators and patrons for compliance with OPS regulations and eliminate inequities or hardships to either group.”

Si was well known in the restaurant industry, having helped found the Oregon Restaurant Association. He was a charter member of the Retail Ice Cream Association and a member of the National Restaurant Association. Around town, he was a member of the First Christian Church of Portland and Lang Syne Society, and past president of the Progressive Business Men’s Club and the Portland Lawn Bowling Club.

So why aren’t their hundreds of Siberrian Cream shops operating today? When the business lapsed during World War II, Si refused to compromise his invention by substituting real sugar with glucose.

Though his trademark was renewed in 1953, Si retired in 1955. The last reference to a Siberrian Cream store is in a 1962 Portland city directory.

Si died in 1991, but his legacy lives on in cones and dishes around the world.