Who could have known back in 1938 that opening an ice cream store in a pair of trolley cars would be the start of a family business that would carry through generations and start family traditions that have touched the lives of many Cincinnatians, as they return year after year for that silky-smooth taste of a Putz’s creamy whip.
Coming out of the Depression that financially ruined many Americans, Constantine and Anna Putz decided to take a leap from selling pies and baked goods door to door, to opening a small store selling these items. Within a couple of years, they took an even bigger leap and opened Putz’s, an ice cream business, with their daughter Gertie and her new husband, Ray Ehrhardt. They sold hand-dipped ice cream, three scoops for a nickel, out of two streetcars at 4166 Spring Grove Avenue near Chambers Street. For ten years, their business continued to grow despite floods, one of which totally covered the streetcars, and the down times of World War II. In 1948, however, things took a turn for the worse. Ray’s appendix burst and he became seriously ill. Putz’s would close.
It didn’t stay closed very long. In 1949, Ray and Gertie re-opened Putz’s on Prout’s Corner at Glenway Avenue and Cleves-Warsaw in Price Hill. They did okay there for a couple of years, but were looking for a place of their own. Some place they could buy a piece of land and build a building to suit the needs of their new venture in the ice cream market – the soft serve creamy whip as it’s called today. Ray wasn’t too sure about buying the lot “down in that hole” as he called it, but every time he said no, Gertie said, “I’ll take it.” Needless to say, the move proved to be a sweet success.
By this time, their son, Raymond A., had become the third generation to help operate the family business and two years after the new store was opened, his new wife Lillian joined the group too. As they began the business in their current location at the foot of Mt. Airy, a new era had begun. Ray and Gertie brought in their two new Electro-Freeze ice cream machines, that the family swears, is what separates their ice cream from all the other creamy whips in the area. Believe it or not, these two machines that were purchased in 1954 and 1955 are still in full time operation today. In order to help establish themselves in their new location, Putz’s advertised the same special for 15 straight years to open the season, “Buy one and get one for one cent.” At that time, cones were 5 cents to 25 cents, sundaes were 15 and 25 cents, sodas were sold for 20 cents, and milk shakes and malts were 25 cents. A banana split with three dips, syrup, fruit, whipped cream and nuts was 35 cents. Their advertised special was such a success that after those first 15 years Putz’s advertising has all been done by word of mouth. For most Putz’s customers, a trip for ice cream brings back some fond childhood memories, as they bring their children down to the store and look through the windows at the same Electro-Freeze machines that served them as kids.
By the late 1960s, most of the customers were calling Ray and Gertie, Grandma and Grandpa Putz. People would bring their entire family down and sit at the picnic tables in the maple grove behind the store eating their preferred summer treat and enjoying the day. As the decade came to a close, however, Putz’s got some news that threatened to close the business again. They had already been through road closings on several occasions and would survive many more in the years to come, but this was something that many thought they could do nothing about. The I-74 expressway and its right of way was planned to come within three feet of their back door. Most people would have just accepted the fact, figuring you can’t fight the federal government, but not Lil Ehrhardt. She wrote a letter to President Nixon on September 9, 1971, explaining how Putz’s supported two entire families and that the planned right of way line would ruin their business. It would not only take away their quiet picnic grove behind the store but would essentially eliminate the space necessary to accept deliveries and such through their only entrance. Believe it or not, Lil received a letter back from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, dated October 26, saying that a review of construction plans indicated that the line and fence might be able to be moved back another nine feet. Eventually the plans were changed and a number of big shots with the state highway department came to Putz’s and asked, “Who in the hell do you know that could get the federal government to move the interstate?” They all laugh about it now, but at the time, it was a huge victory for the little guy. The picnic area had to be moved to the side of the parking lot, but the store was able to survive and families still sit and enjoy their favorite treats at the picnic tables on those hot summer days.
In 1979 Ray and Gertie sold the business to their son, Ray. That didn’t mean that Grandma and Grandpa Putz, as they were called by many of their customers, quit working. They both continued to work part-time along with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Gertie, always one for a good comment said, “Retire? Ray and I will never retire. Every time somebody retires, they die. We’ll be here forever. We’ve got ice cream in our veins instead of blood.”
In 1987, thanks to Mary Young, an aide to Councilman Ken Blackwell, Putz’s was honored by having the section of Baltimore Avenue between Montana Avenue and West Fork Road that it sits on renamed Putz’s Place. The Resolution, to honor Putz’s and Ray and Gertie Ehrhardt was introduced by Blackwell and passed by a 9 – 0 vote in city council. The official ordinance, #349, was signed and dated on September 2, by Mayor Charles J. Luken. Over the years, Putz’s has been honored and recognized for its ice cream, service and family like atmosphere almost yearly in the local papers. It has also been written up in a number of food guides such as: Diving Out by Joyce Miller and Mike Boylan, Roadfood by Jane and Michael Stern, Ohio Magazine, and Cincinnati Magazine by Mary Stegman and others. In Cincinnati Magazine’s 23rd Annual Awards, Putz’s was honored as the “Best of Cincinnati – Soft Serve Ice Cream.” The Colerain Boosters and playwright Dick Ruehrwein even went so far as writing and performing a play entitled, “Putz’s Creamy Whip” twice over the years.
It is not, however, the honors and recognition that makes Putz’s what it is. It’s family and the attention given to each customer. Whether it’s adding a face to a cup of creamy whip for a man holding his young child in his arms, or seeing one of the regulars pull into the lot and having their order ready by the time they get to the window. “We’re just one big happy family” says Grandma Gertie, “We act like we know them and they act like they know us.” There are many stories that can be told of couples meeting in line or getting engaged while sitting at the picnic tables. One couple even tried to convince Grandpa Ray to let them get married on the roof one year because they had met and fallen in love at Putz’s.
Some of the more recent memories the family and their employees have cherished are the yearly visits by Cammy Dierking and the children from “Thursday’s Child,” along with the opportunity to help the Clear Channel Relief Fund after the tragedy of September 11,2001. Since 1996, the “Thursday’s Child” children have been brought to Putz’s by Cammy. They not only get to enjoy a treat of their choice, but also are given a Putz’s shirt and a chance to come inside and see the frosted over Electro-Freeze machines that pump out that favorite treat. On September 22, 2001, Putz’s, their employees and suppliers donated all proceeds, wages, tips and supplier donations to help those suffering from the World Trade Center tragedy.
Over the past few years, the family has had some hard losses to deal with. In March of 1995, Ray “Grandpa” Ehrhardt died, just a few days before his and Gertie’s 65th wedding anniversary. Yet, on March 28, when Mark Purdy from the Enquirer visited for opening day, there was Grandma Gertie working. “I feel lousy,” she admitted, “But it’s like when Ray and I tried to retire. After one day… he said, ‘The hell with this, I’m going to work’, the same for me.” Ray was honored with a Resolution by the City of Cincinnati in May of that year for his lifetime achievement in providing quality products in a fun, friendly and family atmosphere. Eight years later, in April of 2003, Gertie “Grandma” Ehrhardt passed away, finally joining her husband Ray in retirement. She had just turned 93, but had still been working through the previous summer.
The passing of two of Putz’s founding members has been hard, but the family and their employees have carried on. Donna Rae (Ehrhardt) Borgman and her husband Jack bought the business from Ray and Lillian in 1994, but just as Ray and Gertie before him, Ray still continues to work part-time. Donna has been working at Putz’s since she was 13, so nothing has been lost as far as delivering the same quality product and down home family friendliness that has carried Putz’s through four generations. With Jack and Donna’s son Ray (yes, another Ray) working there now, it looks like Putz’s and members of the founding family will be around for years to come.
TO ALL OUR TRUE BLUE WONDERFUL CUSTOMERS… THANKS FOR MAKING OUR MANY YEARS IN BUSINESS AT THIS LOCATION A REAL PLEASURE SERVING YOU!
Stop down and visit us. Join the thousands that have made their visits to Putz’s, a family tradition.