Nelson’s Ice Cream in Stillwater

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

A tiny little girl steps out of the door of Nelson’s Dairy Inn. She’s got both hands wrapped around a large soda cup with a bloom of blue, pink, and bright yellow ice cream exploding out of it. She needs both hands to keep it balanced because she is holding a full pint of ice cream and this task requires her full attention.

“She got the Superman,” my 6-year-old son breathes in admiration. Superman, he explains, is blue moon, red pop, and lemon ice cream swirled together. How does he know this stuff? More importantly, I’m thinking, who ordered that little kid a vat of ice cream?

When my husband emerges holding our treats and wearing a shell-shocked expression it becomes clear: That was what the folks at Nelson’s consider a kiddie cup.

Nelson’s is a half-mile away from the tourist joints on Stillwater’s Main Street, up on the hill, past the grand Victorian B&Bs among the middle-class homes. On a summer night, the line winds cheerily down the block. When the picnic tables in the parking lot fill up, which they do even on a slow night, families take a seat on the grass across the street. Bikers stand astride their rides and wipe drips of Mackinac Island Fudge off their beards. Parents wipe pink streaks of Bubble Gum off their toddlers. Most people seem hypnotized by the size of the servings in front of them. Nevertheless, most cups hit the trash can licked clean.

And it has been thus for more than six decades. The building started as a corner grocery store in 1923 and was bought by the Nelson family in 1947, according to the company website. At the time, the Nelsons also owned Brown’s Ice Cream in Minneapolis and were known from the very beginning as generous scoopers. The business has changed hands a couple of times since then and now serves Cedar Crest ice cream, while Brown’s has become a distributor of other brands.

Cedar Crest, based in Oshkosh, WI, makes a staggering line of flavors and Nelson’s sells more than 40 of them. From the original Elephant Tracks (peanut butter cups and chocolate swirl in chocolate ice cream) to Pirate’s Booty (caramel ice cream with cookies and M&Ms), these are kid flavors and feel-like-a-kid-again flavors. If you’re looking for handcrafted salted caramel, oatmeal stout, or green tea in grown-up half-cup servings, there are plenty of places for that in the Twin Cities. But if the smell of Peppermint Stick melting on the asphalt on a hot night means summer to you, there’s a pint of ice cream at Nelson’s waiting for you.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Nelson’s Ice Cream
Ice cream shop in Stillwater

920 Olive St W
Stillwater, MN 55082
Mon-Sat 11am-10pm
Sun Noon-10pm