The more things change…8/2/2017
Dad’s Old Fashioned Lemonade has served its secret recipe to thirsty fairgoers since 1948.
Sometimes life gives you lemons. It was 1948, and an unknown gentleman needed to leave town. He didn’t say why, and he didn’t say where he was going, but he needed to get to wherever he was going and fast. But first, the mystery man needed to sell the Dad’s Old Fashioned Lemonade stand that he operated at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
“He sold it to my mom, the whole thing, for $75,” remembers Margaret Anderson, who now owns the stand and has operated it since her mom, Nettie Mulstay, stepped aside in the early ’80s.
At the time, Mulstay already operated three stands at the fair — each offered home-cooked food — and she knew a good deal when she saw one. Even in 1948, it was too good of a deal to pass up.
The family has been making lemonade ever since.
“It was such a good bargain for my mom,” says Anderson.
The stand hasn’t changed much in the ensuing 70 years. Dad’s Old Fashioned Lemonade is the name it came with. No one knows if it was referencing the unknown seller’s dad, or if it was chosen for marketing purposes, but it isn’t named for anyone in Anderson’s family.
The recipe is closely guarded by Anderson, but she says it hasn’t changed much either. The juice is still obtained by crushing fresh lemons immediately before they are to be consumed.
“Every single glass is freshly squeezed,” says Anderson’s daughter, Diane Perry. “We make ours one by one.”
Mulstay did make one tweak, though. Since 1948, each lemonade has been accompanied by an orange wedge.
“It really mellows it out,” explains Perry. “They’re wonderful, and that’s what people remember.”
“That’s the one thing my mom did,” adds Anderson. “She put an orange in it.”
The stick-built stand is one of the few left at the Fair that isn’t on wheels. Usually, stands are supposed to be mobile, but Anderson says the Fair allows her to continue vending since her ownership pre-dates the rule change disallowing stick-built stands. As long as Anderson is the owner, the stand will be allowed. She also says she is thankful to the board for allowing her to maintain her prime location, on the east side of the Bill Riley Stage on Rock Island Avenue.
One thing that has changed during Anderson’s lemon-slinging tenure is the cost of lemonade. She says in 1948 the stand charged 75 cents per cup. Now, it’s $4. She remembers the first price increase, as it was a practical solution to a problem. Workers at the stand grew tired of making change for 75-cent lemonades.
“Well,” Anderson remembers saying, “bump it to a dollar,” which they reluctantly did, wondering if people would pay that much. But thirsty fair-goers didn’t seem to mind.
Anderson is 87 years old, and she still works the stand.
“And she’s still the boss,” affirms Perry.
Much has changed from Anderson’s first sale to her next. The fair of yesteryear had more activities in the streets, according to Anderson. And she remembers large spaces used to be in between the vending stands. She estimates the Fair now has four times as many stands as when she served her first lemonade.
Dad’s is a family tradition for Anderson. For 11 days every August, five generations of the clan labor together, sweating, laughing and helping people cool off and quench their thirst. Much of the family takes vacation from their day jobs to work the Fair. Anderson says being with her family is the best part. She has many fond memories hanging out after a long day of crushing lemons.
In fact, her great grandson, Dre Perry, started working at the stand when he was 6 years old, he needed to stand on top of a milk crate to reach and “work the crusher.” He was happy to help out and serve. He’s the one who made most of the upgrades to the stand, including the flags, and he’s in charge of putting the stand up each year and taking it down.
Keeping cool isn’t easy at the Fair, but the family manages without air conditioning by drinking a lot of lemonade. The weather matters to fair vendors for business purposes, too. Some like it hot, and others prefer it when it’s not, according to Anderson. If it’s hot, sunny and dry, the crew at the stand will be busy. But if it’s cold or rainy, the food vendors are the ones who cash in.
“Everything depends on the weather. If it’s really hot, we do pretty good,” explains Perry. “If it’s cold, we don’t.”
The stand can sell up to 1,500 cups a day, but 17.5 percent off the top goes to the Fair board, plus sales tax, and each worker has to pay entrance into the Fair, which Anderson covers for them, plus parking for the day, various utility charges, usage fees and supplies.
“We don’t get rich,” says Perry. ♦