In 1955, two young brothers from Stillwater, Minn., came to the Moorhead Dairy Queen with a dilly of an idea.
Sons of a Minneapolis ice cream distributor, they'd been toying with a product they wanted to demonstrate.
Robert Litherland, co-owner of the Moorhead Dairy Queen at the time, called up all the area Dairy Queens - Island Park, Casselton and West Fargo - to watch the show.
Litherland said he stared as the brothers blobbed DQ soft serve on paper and stuck medical tongue depressors in them. After coating them in chocolate, one brother held the creation up and said, "Now, isn't that a dilly."
Immediately, Fargo-Moorhead stores began selling the coated, round ice cream-on-a-stick product, aptly named the Dilly Bar, for a dime. "We didn't have any trouble selling them at all - they just took off," Litherland said.
For the next six months medical suppliers were amazed at the rate tongue depressors were disappearing. Litherland said, "The only mistake we all made is that we weren't smart enough to copyright that name. Oh, well. We had fun with it anyway."
More than 40 years later, Dilly Bars are sold in most of the 5,200 Dairy Queens worldwide. The Moorhead DQ alone sells more than 50,000 a season.
Although the original Dilly Bar came only with a chocolate coating, butterscotch and pale pink cherry have been added in recent years. And for 50 cents each or $4.50 for a bag of 10 at the Moorhead store, they're still considered one of the best ice cream deals around.
The Moorhead DQ, famed for its rite of spring opening, free sundaes on April 15 tax day and palatable prices, is one of the oldest existing Dairy Queens in the country. Opened by Robert and his wife Phyllis in 1949, it was born only nine years after the original DQ store opened in Joliet, Ill.
"We owned an apartment building on that corner of Eighth Street and Main Avenue," Litherland said. "The building was under rent control from World War II - rent was $35.50 a month, heat included, and we were losing money."
After watching the lines grow at the Island Park DQ, Litherland said it only made sense to hop into bed with American Dairy Queen, Inc.
They operated that DQ for 46 years, from 9 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, for eight months every year.
The Litherlands say their partnership was equal in every way. That changed in the summer of 1950 when Robert was called back into the U.S. Army to fight in Korea. That year Phyllis, with a 1-year-old baby and pregnant with another, re-opened the fledgling business in March with only four employees, compared with 18 when they sold the business in 1995.
"I left her standing with egg on her face that second year, but by God, she did it," Litherland said.
They learned the tricks of the trade together, and even developed some of their own. "We discriminated. I know we shouldn't have, but for the most part we only hired girls," Litherland said.
"I learned early on that boys are just too messy. They leave a trail everywhere they go, and that's the Lord's truth." The last straw was when he found a boy, who had been gone an hour, sitting in the freezer wearing earmuffs and reading a comic book.
"I thought about it, and I decided the kids work better when you don't mix them up by gender. Especially the ones in high school. You can't spend all your time digging them out of corners, you know," Litherland said.
Phyllis, who ate a DQ chocolate shake every night at midnight for 46 years, said operating the Dairy Queen was the best job in the world, and Robert agreed.
"If you have to be in business, ice cream is the best. You've got people coming to you who know what they want to get, and they're in anticipation of giving themselves a treat, so their attitude is terrific. You rarely have mean, nasty people to deal with at the Dairy Queen."
Robert, fondly called Dairy Queen Bob by many Moorhead natives, is still on call, filling in behind the counter whenever scheduling emergencies arise. "Though my feet are nearly broken and it's tough to stand on them, I just love to be there, to see the people," he said.
Litherland never did eat much ice cream, but loved those cashews. "And I especially loved to throw them at people," he said.
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