With Four Generations of Dagers
and their Velvet Ice Cream
There’s just something warm and inviting about a family business that has grown to become a household name across the Midwest in four generations when the president of the company (great-granddaughter of the founder) is smiling and talking to visitors over the lunch counter.
Ye Olde Mill, the headquarters of Velvet Ice Cream in Utica, Ohio is a charming place to visit. The drive through the rolling hills and green space is therapeutic. And just when the airiness of the landscape draws deep inhale and slow exhale, the manufacturing complex of the company comes into sight. After rounding the bend, the modern facility fades into a 200-year-old postcard view of the historic mill and its mesmerizing water wheel. Visitors meander the park-like grounds which have ponds, pavilions, and grills. A sign reads “Catch and Release Allowed.”
From May to October, the doors of the historic mill are open. Inside is a lunch menu and oh so many choices of ice cream it may take a while to decide what to get. The rustic setting is just the beginning of the photo ops. An adjacent ice cream museum walks folks through the history of ice cream and the Dager family history of Velvet Ice Cream. Outside is a patio with a grand view of the waterwheel in motion. A welcome center also helps shape the story about this enchanted place and gathers people who want to take the tour of the manufacturing process to see just how ice cream is made (call to see when the tours resume). Although there are also hiking trails, the most beaten path is around the main pond that reflects the old mill in its pool of water. It is no wonder so many people get married here or host family reunions.
Velvet Ice Cream is an All-American family story that began at Ellis Island, New York in 1903. That’s when an unaccompanied 15-year-old immigrant from Lebanon, Joseph Dager, stepped off a boat to pursue his American dream. About a decade later, he produced his first ice cream in Utica, Ohio. That hand-churned batch was rich and creamy – smooth as velvet – so he called it Velvet Ice Cream.
During the Great Depression, Joseph’s sons Edward and Charles Dager took the growing business to the next level. They built a manufacturing plant to keep up with the demand from area restaurants and grocery stores.
In the 1950s, after Edward and Charles passed away, the third generation of Dagers – Joe and Mike – was put in leadership roles while still in high school and college. Over the next 30 years, they not only continued the expansion of distribution for their grandfather’s Velvet Ice Cream, but they also made their picturesque place in rural Central Ohio a tourist destination.
An 1817 grist mill with its iconic waterwheel became what is today called Ye Olde Mill, home of Velvet Ice Cream. Its restoration in the 1960s came complete with a turn of the century ice cream parlor. The mill used to be a gathering place for community events. The only thing that has changed since is the size of the gatherings. In the coming years, the restaurant, ice cream parlor, museum, and tours of the mill and manufacturing process would grow to attract more than 150,000 visitors per year. Today, more than five million gallons of Velvet Ice Cream’s 60+ flavors are produced annually.
Two of Joe Dager’s daughters, Luconda and Joanne, head up the company today. Although they oversee a big business in a very competitive industry, they haven’t forgotten the personal touch that their great grandfather instilled in the Velvet Ice Cream culture and family over 100 years ago.
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun!