In the beginning, the only folks who screamed for ice cream were filthy rich. The history of the ice cream parlors we know today dates back to France in the late 1600s, but the sweet treat didn’t take off with the general population until the arrival of industrial refrigeration technologies in the 1870s.
Even then, there were problems. Early parlors served ice cream on paper plates that were too flimsy to hold up. To make matters worse, the cheap disposable spoons they used were made of tin. They had sharp edges that could cut the tongue. Plus, tin had a metallic aftertaste that overwhelmed the flavors at hand.
The man who fixed these problems for folks all over the country is John H. Mulholland, an Irish immigrant who spent much of his life in lower Delaware, settling first in Laurel and then in Milford. He is, as we’ll see, quite the memorable character.
Life of Adventure: John Mulholland’s Early Years
John H. Mulholland was a wanderer, so when it came time to choose a “forever” home, he had lots of choices. He was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1865. He moved to Canada as a teenager. He was in Montreal for a while. He traveled all over as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. His unit helped squashed one of the last Indian rebellions, in Saskatchewan. Mulholland earned a medal for his role in that.
After he left the mounties, he returned to Ireland. This was 1887. He must have been broke, because he signed on to pay his fare by agreeing to watch over a shipment of cattle in the cargo hold. The job didn’t go well. All hell broke loose down there when the cattle busted through their pens during a storm.
The writer Rudyard Kipling was a fellow passenger on that ship. He wrote a poem about that incident and titled it “Mulholland’s Contract.” (Don’t look it up: I’ll include the poem at the end here.)
He stayed back in Ireland for a couple of years. He had his eye on Philadelphia, but he couldn’t make it work and so settled in Toronto. He married Emma Jean Harper on May 7, 1890. The couple soon moved to Philadelphia. They had two sons, Harry and Frederick.
Mulholland was in the advertising game by this point, making signs to help promote businesses. One of his clients was a fledgling operation called Breyer’s Ice Cream—William Breyer operated a handful of ice cream shops at this point, with deliveries made by horse-drawn carriage. That company started cranking out ice cream in gallon containers in 1918. (Today, it’s owned by corporate behemoth Unilever.)
The Ice Cream Adventures of John Mulholland
The first ice cream parlor problem that Mulholland solved was those flimsy paper plates. Here, he found inspiration through his advertising and printing acumen. Entrepreneurs in the fledgling ice cream game were eager to step up their marketing game in the early 1900s, but couldn’t figure out how to do it. If they printed logos or advertising slogans on those flimsy plates, the ink would start to run while folks were still eating—not an appetizing prospect. Instead, they printed messages on the bottoms of plates, which failed to get much in the way of results because … who turns a plate full of ice cream upside down?
Mulholland applied for his first patent in 1915. His idea was to print marketing stuff on the original plate but then add a transparent waterproof piece of upper paper cut into the precise shape of the lower plate. The two layers would then be fused together with a clear adhesive. The lamination process that we know today didn’t arrive on the scene until the 1930s, but he was on that track.
From his patent application: “The purpose of my invention [is] to provide a perfectly sanitary dish or plate made of paper with printed matter of any color or any kind of advertising matter or any kind of ornamentation in colors, and have such printed matter or advertisement readily observable from the top or upper face of the plate where it will be most conspicuous.”
But Mulholland really hit it big when he turned his attention several years later to those tin spoons. His inspiration came in a visit to lower Delaware, which then ranked as quite the innovative place when it came to making wooden baskets for fruits and vegetables (that’s another story I’m going to write up someday).
The basket-making innovation that caught Mulholland’s attention involved the use of veneer in cheap baskets made of sweetgum wood that were used in the fruit-drying process. By design to protect the flavor of the fruit, that wood had no taste at all. Mulholland was soon working with the A.W. Robinson Basket Company in Laurel to figure out a die-press method of cutting spoons. Within a short time, he was also trying to perfect a process using the one-two punch of steam and pressure to “bend” the wood into a spoonish shape deep enough to actually hold ice creamed.
Mulholland had a feeling that he was onto something big. He put his son Harry in charge of bringing the manufacturing process to the finish line while he headed out across the country on sales calls. His strategy involved showing up at ice cream companies with a “spoon in one pocket and a piece of sandpaper in the other.”
Mulholland still had the marketing game in his blood. He chose the clever name of “Bentwood Spoons.” But those sales calls didn’t go so well at first. Not only were the wooden spoons new and unfamiliar, but they were more expensive than tin spoons, too. The big break came a couple of years later when the folks at fast-growing Breyer’s Ice Cream decided to trust their former signage and advertising guy, giving the newfangled plates and spoons a try.
The Glory Years of J.H. Mulholland Co.
Throughout the decades that followed, J.H. Mulholland company had corporate offices in Philadelphia while its primary manufacturing operations were in Milford. The Mulholland family had homes in both places. The one in Milford sat on the shores of Haven Lake.
Once that Breyer’s break came through, the business started to take off nicely. But then disaster struck:
The Wilmington Morning News, Jan. 22, 1924: “Fire today destroyed the main building of the wooden spoon plant of J.H. Mulholland Company, entailing a loss estimated at $50,000. The building was a one-story corrugated iron structure and contained many valuable machines … designed for special work in the manufacture of the patented wooden spoon. This was the only factory of its kind in the country.”
The night was cold and windy. A frozen water main cost precious time, as firefighters had to regroup and send a pumping engine down to the Mispillion River. One hundred Mulholland Company workers lost their jobs that night.
Mulholland regrouped and rebuilt soon enough. He bought the former Reis and Hirsch vegetable cannery building at the north end of Marshall Street, right on the Mispillion River. That operation had shut down several years before.
In the big-picture scheme of things, Mulholland’s timing was perfect. The automobile was coming into its own in the 1920s. Interest in road-tripping was through the roof. Refrigeration technologies kept improving, to the point where it was easy as pie to keep ice cream frozen in a cute little roadside spot. Ice cream parlors popped up everywhere.
To say that J.H. Mulholland Co. became the second biggest employer in Milford—with 200-plus employees—understates the firm’s success. Needing more manufacturing capacity, the company opened plants in Michigan, Maine, and Oregon. They started making mustard paddles and lollypop sticks. They moved into the medical market with tongue depressors.
Mulholland kept leading the company forward, growing even as the Depression arrived. Alas, his wife Emma died young, in 1932. Perhaps this had something to do with the family’s announcement around this time that Mulholland’s son Harry would take over the business. Harry would soon become a state senator. His father would eventually marry for a second time, this time to a former Breyer’s Ice Cream employee named Marie Wimserberger.
The J.H. Mulholland company kept chugging along right through World War II. Innovations in the plastics industry soon changed everything, however. Plastic spoons that were both strong and cheap made wooden spoons obsolete in the ice cream business. The Walnut Street facility shut down in the 1950s, as did the rest of the company’s operations.
In 1953, the Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers gave Mulholland a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in recognition of his company’s accomplishments.
John Mulholland as Milford Civic Citizen
There is one more aspect of the John Mulholland story that needs to be noted here—and that is the way his living arrangement reflects something common on the Delmarva Peninsula now. In today’s terms, he would qualify as a “part-time resident,” splitting his time between the big city and his “weekend” place in the country.
When it came to issues of local citizenship, however, John Mulholland didn’t act like a part-timer—especially when it came to his beloved Haven Lake. He thought Milford residents should have more access to Haven Lake, so he purchased land that had formerly been used as a swimming beach and reopened it. That was 1935.
He built a fishing lodge on Haven Lake, inviting various ice cream moguls to come spend a weekend fishing. He would give them a tour of his factory, showing off his “sincere and honest” local workforce. He would try to get those moguls to sign off on deals before heading back home. He called his lodge “The Bentwood Club.”
In 1936, the Wilmington News Journal reported that Mulholland had been hosting a series of meetings at his lakeside home in an effort to make part or all of Haven Lake a protected refuge for ducks, geese, and other waterfowl. Somewhere along the line here, he took it upon himself to hire a professional to make sure Haven Lake waterfowl were properly fed.
In 194o, the News Journal reported on big crowds of people—many of them photographers and film crews—who would stop at Haven Lake to admire its thick flocks of waterfowl. The place was so popular that sometimes traffic came to a standstill along the bridge over the Mispillion River on DuPont Boulevard (now DuPont Highway).
In 1937, Mulholland put his old advertising signage skills to work for Milford. He designed a local variation of the Delaware seal for use as an official city seal. He presented that seal to the City Council as a gift, along with a flag showing the seal. That flag soon went up in the council chambers.
The Wilmington Morning News, Sept. 27, 1937: “The old mill with the Waterford in the center of the seal is emblematic of the landmark from with this city takes its name. The side characters represent agriculture and navigation. The famous Mispillion oyster crowning the shield, and the clipper ship, represent the early industries of the city.”
That seal is still in use today, as far as I can tell. Mulholland was also active with local Freemasons, the Rotary Club, and at Christ Episcopal Church.
He died on Sept. 15, 1958.
—posted by Jim Duffy on March 25, 2021 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.
NOTE #1: The Old Plant
If you visit Milford nowadays, this location of the Mulholland plant at 2 Marshall Street is on the south side of the river, along the town’s famous Riverwalk—beyond the Vinyard Shipyard site as you are heading toward Goat Island. There is a kayak launch nearby. I am not sure, but I suspect that the Google Earth image you see here of a white building is the old Mulholland plant. I invite knowledgeable locals to please chime in here in the comments confirming that or telling me it’s wrong.
NOTE #2: The Kipling Poem
After witnessing the cow-tending disaster that befell young John Mulholland on his transatlantic voyage in 1887, Rudyard Kipling turned that turn of events into a poem about religious conversion, with the lead character cutting a deal with God in exchange for divine intervention.
Mulholland’s Contract (1894)
The fear was on the cattle, for the gale was on the sea,
An’ the pens broke up on the lower deck an’ let the creatures free—
An’ the lights went out on the lower deck, an’ no one near but me.
I had been singin’ to them to keep ’em quiet there,
For the lower deck is the dangerousest, requirin’ constant care,
An’ give to me as the strongest man, though used to drink and swear.
I seed my chance was certain of bein’ horned or trod,
For the lower deck was packed with steers thicker’n peas in a pod,
An’ more pens broke at every roll—so I made a Contract with God.
An’ by the terms of the Contract, as I have read the same,
If He got me to port alive I would exalt His Name,
An’ praise His Holy Majesty till further orders came.
He saved me from the cattle an’ He saved me from the sea,
For they found me ’tween two drownded ones where the roll had landed me—
An’ a four-inch crack on top of my head, as crazy as could be.
But that were done by a stanchion, an’ not by a bullock at all,
An’ I lay still for seven weeks convalescing of the fall,
An’ readin’ the shiny Scripture texts in the Seaman’s Hospital.
An’ I spoke to God of our Contract, an’ He says to my prayer:
“I never puts on My ministers no more than they can bear.
“So back you go to the-cattle-boats an’ preach My Gospel there.
“For human life is chancy at any kind of trade,
“But most of all, as well you know, when the steers are mad-afraid;
“So you go back to the cattle-boats an’ preach ’em as I’ve said.
“They must quit drinkin’ an’ swearin’, they mustn’t knife on a blow,
“They must quit gamblin’ their wages, and you must preach it so;
“For now those boats are more like Hell than anything else I know.”
I didn’t want to do it, for I knew what I should get,
An’ I wanted to preach Religion, handsome an’ out of the wet,
But the Word of the Lord were laid on me, an’ I done what I was set.
I have been smit an’ bruiséd, as warned would be the case,
An’ turned my cheek to the smiter exactly as Scripture says;
But, following that, I knocked him down an’ led him up to Grace.
An’ we have preaching on Sundays whenever the sea is calm,
An’ I use no knife or pistol an’ I never take no harm,
For the Lord abideth back of me to guide my fighting arm.
An’ I sign for four-pound-ten a month and save the money clear,
An’ I am in charge of the lower deck, an’ I never lose a steer;
An’ I believe in Almighty God an’ I preach His Gospel here.
The skippers say I’m crazy, but I can prove ’em wrong,
For I am in charge of the lower deck with all that doth belong—
Which they would not give to a lunatic, and the competition so strong!
NOTE #3: The Saskatchewan Letter
Like so many of us in our older years, Mulholland’s thoughts turned in YEAR to the adventures of his youth. After seeing a tourism ad in Field & Stream magazine for Saskatchewan, Canada, he wrote this letter to a newspaper in the city of Regina there. The newspaper found it interesting enough to publish on Sept. 5, 1946.
To the tourist branch of the provincial government has come a letter requesting information about hunting and fishing from a man who served as a corporal in the North West Mounted police during the Riel [Indian] rebellion.
The letter is from John H. Mulholland of Haven Lake, Milford, Delaware, and he signs it, Corporal, N.W.M.P. “associate” during the Riel rebellion and adds the note that he enlisted in the Montreal Garrison artillery.
Mr. Mulholland’s letter reads as follows:
“Your advertisement in Field and Stream attracts me, and I will thank you to send me all illustrated matter your office has to offer.
“In 1885 I rode the prairie with Piapot’s two boys, visited Pile of Bones Creek, hiked to Long Lake, and, for want of a boat, took off my pants and, with a make-shift land line, caught muskies; if the pelicans didn’t get them first.
“There was no Regina city in ’85; just a water tank and pile of cordwood for the locomotive. My train was the first C.P.R. to go through from Montreal to Winnipeg.
“I’d be pleased to have a good hunting guide. Since I’ve settled here, I have raised mallard and black ducks and Canadian geese in a small way. Now that I’m up to three score and 20, my fishing is done in my own backyard where I get black bass and pike after sundown. I thank you in advance, John H. Mulholland.”
Last but not least: Thank you for spending a little time with this story and on this site.