ICE CREAM We All Scream For!

Story by Jeannie Stone

Summertime is the time for swimming, picnics and long days of sunshine. Many of us, the fortunate ones, can recall the memory of tinny circus music tinkling in the distance and remember the thrill of anticipation when the ice cream truck made its way into the neighborhood.

Bill Nichols, also known as Mr. Bill, Uncle Bill or, simply, the Ice Cream Man, is keeping that memory alive for children all over Russellville.

In his ‘glammed-up’ former passenger van, Nichols, 66, tools around town offering chips, candy, drinks, snow cones and ice cream for sale to delighted children and their taller companions.

“Oh, I sell dill pickles too. You wouldn’t believe all the pickles I sell,” he said. “Sometimes I sell a jar a day. Little kids and some ladies just love them.”

The man in demand is retired from Newton’s Pharmacy in Russellville and works part-time at Hughes Center.

“But I enjoy doing this more than anything else I’ve ever done,” Nichols said of his eight-year hobby. In fact, he enjoys delivering sweets to children so much that he can’t wait for summer to start his route again.

“About the end of March, when it gets warmer and daylight savings gives me a little more light I start making my rounds. I get antsy, but I won’t start earlier because I’m afraid of a little kid getting run over in the dark.”

The route runs all over town. Nichols starts on Independence Avenue, goes around James Circle and drives down all the streets around James Park. He then turns down Bradley Lane and down Laredo. He makes Circle Drive, goes down Phoenix, into Shadow Lake apartments and down Muskogee.

“I have quite a bit of business on Muskogee,” he said. Indian Hills is the next stop.

“Then I cross Arkansas and go to Boston Place, Detroit and around the Boys and Girls Club. I keep going until it gets dark. I go down 19th Street, and the apartments around Hickey Park.

“I drive by those new homes,” Nichols said, “then down Elmira and those new apartments.” Vancouver is next, and he visits Garden Estates and drives around the circle there and visits Lakewood apartments.

“From there, I stop along 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th Streets, and from Knoxville I go into Jessica, Jackson, Hartford, I go down all those streets. By then, I’m working myself back to my house on South Houston,” he said.

If Nichols is unable to complete his route, he takes up where he left off the following day. He also has just as elaborate a route driving on the north side of town.

“I’ll go to some places a couple of times, but if nobody comes out I figure there aren’t any small kids who live there,” he said.

Although Nichols enjoys working with kids at Hughes Center and assisting with youth at his home church, Pilgrim’s Rest #1 Missionary Baptist Church, he admits delivering a bit of sweetness to the children around town takes a lot of work.

“I’m all by myself,” Nichols said, “and I have to clean the truck every day because the snow cone syrup will attract ants. There’s kind of a lot to it. I have to get the supplies, clean the truck, get the ice for the snow cones, drive the route and jump up and down between 75 and 100 times. I get pretty tired by the end of the day.”

Nichols said the idea of going into the business struck him during a trip to Houston to visit his son, owner of a vending machine company there.

“I was with him when he went to this place to buy supplies, and there were old ice cream trucks lining the driveway,” he said. “I got to thinking, ‘I’d like to do that.’”

So, he began looking for a truck when he returned home. “I wanted to do it so bad by the time I was home that I bought a bread truck, but it was really too big to take on the road like that,” he said, “I ended up taking it to the park and selling snacks out there.”

Nichols finally found a smaller truck used to transport handicapped children to school and took it to a machine shop where a window was fashioned on the side.

“I went and bought some Plexiglass and fixed my window,” he said, “and my son bought an ice shaver to make snow cones. They are some of my biggest sellers.”

On any given day, the Ice Cream Man sells between 150 and 200 menu items. My bestsellers are Sundae Crunch Bars, cherry and blue raspberry snow cones, and Snickers Ice Cream bars.

“I just make enough to buy supplies,” Nichols said, “and with my Diabetes, I hope I stay in good enough health to keep doing this for a long time.”

“A lot of kids don’t have any money,” Nichols said. “I really try to keep my prices down so they can afford what they want, but lots of times, they run short. If they’re a dime or a nickel short I’ll tell them to pay me the difference next time. Next time I come around, they’ll be running to me waving their coin in the air letting me know they didn’t forget.”

Nichols considers himself hooked on his hobby. “I can handle kids better than grownups, and there are some really good kids. They’re always, ‘Yes sir. No sir.’”

The sight of older kids jumping and dancing with excitement in their driveways waiting for him to stop tickles Nichols. “You would never see big kids acting like that anywhere else,” he said.

“Nothing thrills me more than a little kid pointing to me at the store saying, ‘Mama, there’s Mr. Bill or Uncle Bill.”

Nichols, who mentions his favorite treats are the red, white and blue bomb pops, shakes his head with a smile. “I guess I’m just a big kid at heart.”

 

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