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Ice Cream Parlor once hosted school, town offices, glove factory

CHESTERTOWN Although many buildings may claim a prominent role in local history, very few have continually seen so much activity through the years as the Main St. Ice Cream Parlor & Restaurant structure. Whether its the dozens of children attending school in the early 1900s, the day-long traffic of citizens conducting governmental business, workers busily assembling gloves, or a steady stream of restaurant patrons enjoying a meal this building has accommodated them all since it was constructed in 1913. Perched atop a hill on Main St. in the middle of Chestertown, the Ice Cream Parlor building was bustling with activity Wednesday, hosting dozens of local residents and visitors who savored ice cream, sodas and sandwiches while others shopped for clothing and home furnishings in the enterprises gift shop upstairs. The enterprise is operated by Bruce and Helena Robbins and their family members. The yellow wood-frame building now looks almost identical to how it did in 1913, when it was first constructed as Chestertowns high school. A photograph from 1914 shows the schools student body and faculty, numbering nearly 90, either sitting on the stone wall that still exists next to the sidewalk, or standing behind on the grass with the school in the background. Town of Chester Historical Society President Mary Jane Dower reflected Wednesday on how the school taught a wide variety of subjects to grades 7 through 12, yet had only four classrooms. My mother went to high school there, graduating in 1919, Dower said. Can you believe it, she learned Latin, German, Math, Social Studies and English all fields of study in that building. In 1935, the school and its activities were moved into the newly-built Chestertown Central School, which now serves as the town Municipal Center. That expansive two-story brick complex, not far south of the Ice Cream Parlor building, served as the local public school campus until the high school moved to its new site on Rte. 8 in the 1990s. Meanwhile, in the mid-1930s the Ice Cream Parlor building became a glove assembly factory and an antique showroom between the 1930s and late 1950s, until it was rehabilitated and became the Town of Chester offices in 1960, Helena Robbins said. From 1960 to 2001, it was the hub of activity for town government, housing the Town Clerk, Town Court, and offices of the Town Supervisor and various other municipal officials. Whether it was a courtroom full of people contesting traffic tickets in court or a town board debating issues before a capacity audience, the building was regularly full of activity. In 2001, the town offices moved to the former Chestertown Central High School campus, and then in 2004, the Robbins family bought the former 1913 schoolhouse and began renovations, opening up their enterprise in May 2005, Robbins said. The Ice Cream Parlors dining room is full of patrons where in the 1960s through the 1990s town meetings were held. The former town courtroom and offices are now occupied by the restaurants kitchen. The Supervisors office now hosts restrooms and a card shop. The interior architectural details, however, are now more similar to their original state when the building was used as a schoolhouse, Robbins said. The original tin ceilings and walls, and accompanying wainscoting for decades covered up by paneling due to the 1960 renovation are now restored, giving the Main St. Ice Cream Parlor & Restaurant a charming ambiance. The historic feeling of the architecture at the enterprise is enhanced by a variety of old-time signs, advertising material, photographs and news articles displayed on the walls. Also, the soda fountain dates back to the 1930s, Bruce Jr. said. The counter personnel scoop up ice cream and combine it with syrup and fountain soda water just like the old-style fountains did in the early 1900s. Bruce Robbins parents, Suzanne and Bruce Robbins Sr., had operated the ice cream parlor in a building further downtown since 1990, following in the footsteps of the Fish family. Now, Helena and Bruce are busy in the enterprise daily from early morning to near midnight. They serve breakfast sandwiches, and for lunch a full menu of creative sandwiches and homemade soup, plus at suppertime the lunch menu augmented with gourmet dinner specials. These at times include Portabello-stuffed Meatloaf or Louisiana-style Catfish in season conjured up by Bruce Jr. in the kitchen while Helena runs the dining room and counter. The year-round enterprise is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days per week during the summer and employs up to 22 people at the height of the season. Local teenagers, children and adults all enjoy socializing there, and visitors enjoy experiencing a taste of life like it was in olden days, townspeople have said. The buildings impressive history has earned it a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, Robbins said. The customers really love the historic atmosphere, she said. And in this crazy corporate world, its so nice to work together with your family members, she said.

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