Excerpt from “The Best Darned Ice Cream in the Whole State of Maine,” Yankee Magazine August 1981.
Three years ago, the Cote family, who own one of the largest dairies in southern Maine, had a unique problem with leftovers, something every family has to deal with. “Everybody’s on a diet,” Bill Cote explained. “It’s gotten so that 75 percent of our sales are low-fat milk. And every year it gets worse. We had to figure out what to do with all the leftover cream. So, we made ice cream!” — so much ice cream that today Cote’s Old-Fashioned Ice Cream is the most popular in Lewiston.
In Lewiston, the Cote (pronounced (Co-tee) Dairy is just past Bates College, on a quiet street that leads out of the city by degrees, the newly developed houses bunching less and less and the fields growing broader and greener. The Cotes’ place isn’t hard to pick out; it’s the big house with the open porches and the dairy with the abandoned milk truck out back and the milk tanks out front.
The ties in the house and the land around them tangle back through generations and still hold strong. Bill and Cecile Cote, three of their children and nine of their grandchildren, all live within an area less than a quarter of a mile square and, seven days a week, they work together, pasteurizing milk and making ice cream. Operating from this same house where he grew up, Bill, now 70, has built his dairy business from a tiny farm he inherited from his father.
Appropriately, the Cotes’ 14-room house was once a hotel. Bill and Cecile live on the top floor; their oldest son, Roland, 41, and his wife, Nancy, live on the first floor. So, like his father, Roland is bringing up his three children in the house where he himself grew up. The house sits next to a newer, concrete building that houses the dairy and the offices. From Bill and Cecile’s back porch, you can see across the back field to the roofs of the houses of their other two sons, Paul, 33, and Ray, 36.
The Cotes are a family who make the business a part of the family, and ice cream is only a very recent chapter. For 45 years, Bill Cote was one of Lewiston’s best-known milkmen. Starting with only a few head of cows, the dairy grew steadily to a bustling business that no longer has cows but that processes, bottles, and delivers the milk from 14 area farms-close to 13,000 quarts of milk every day. When his sons were growing up, Bill would take them out with him before school, into the quiet of 3 A.M., to help deliver the milk. “I taught ’em young,” is how Bill explains the fact that his sons are still working with him.
Cecile has always been as much a part of the business as Bill has. She always put in a full day, even when the kids were small. “Bill was outside; I was inside. My office used to be at the kitchen table. I had gates all over the place so I could supervise the kids and the office and the house all at the same time.”
Today, Bill and Cecile are retired. Their three sons run the business for them and are as well-known around town as their parents. At one time or another, all three were milkmen. But it has been the ice cream that has really brought them up front. “People know us — they come up to me and they say, ‘Hey, your ice cream is going to make me fat!’ ”
The Cotes are sturdy people of French Canadian descent. It could be imagined that over the years Bill and Cecile have grown to look like each other, their faces creased with expression, their eyes an identical shade of brown. Though both were born and raised in Maine, Bill and Cecile speak with a heavy French accent and their sons do also, though less so. When they are alone, they speak only French, or, as Cecile describes it, whatever comes out first, the French or the English word. Paul and Roland and Ray all went to a bilingual school, which was common in that part of Maine when they were growing up in the fifties and sixties. “In the morning, we’d have math and geography taught to us in French and then in the afternoon we’d have the same classes all over again, but in English,” Roland explained. In Lewiston, it is not uncommon to sit in a restaurant next to other customers who are exchanging the day’s gossip in French. “All my kids speak French,” Cecile explains. “I always wanted them to — if you go somewhere, then you’re with it; you know what people are talking about.”
They are an exceptionally hard-working family, which is the way it has been from the start. Bill and Cecile met when she was 15 and he 18. They dated for seven years before they married, mostly, says Cecile, because Bill was always so busy. “We didn’t get time to see each other very often. Sometimes he would come over to see me and he would fall asleep on the couch. But I never minded. I knew how hard he worked.”
On any given day, weekend or no weekend, the Cotes’ day begins before the sun and often ends long after it has set. The compound around the house and dairy comes alive around three in the morning, when milk trucks begin to line up. Paul begins his day at 4:30, making the mix for the day’s batch of ice cream. It is their own mix, of cream, sugar, eggs, and syrup. The cream, fresh from yesterday’s processing, is in a holding tank outside the cool creamery where he works. He works alone and uses a stainless steel ice cream maker to coax the mix into 17 flavors of ice cream (in the fall, he adds apple and blueberry to his list) and then packs it into bulk boxes for their two in-town ice cream stands, and into half gallons for area supermarkets. When the season is at its peak, he’s churning out 2,000 gallons of ice cream a week.
Roland delivers much of this ice cream and his wife Nancy manages both ice cream stands. Roland always wanted to be a milkman, like his Dad. “I can’t think of anything else I ever wanted to do.” In high school, he used the milk truck to go out on dates. He remembers the retail route, all of his 150 customers, that he covered in the late fifties. He’d start out at 3 A.M. and be done at noon. “Then I could take off,” Roland says, somewhat wistfully. Today the business hardly allows him to take off at noon. Cecile, always the mother, insists that she warned them all well ahead of time that the work would be rough and the hours long. “I always told them ‘Don’t wear your pink glasses. It seems like you’ve got it made and then a truck breaks down and you’ve had it! ‘ I never wanted them to think it would be rosy.”
None of the three sons sees anything mysterious about the fact that they live and work so closely together, in apparent harmony. Ray, the middle son, explains, “We’re always busy so we don’t get in each other’s way that much. But we have our ups and downs. It’s just like a marriage.”
In the marriage, Paul makes the ice cream, Roland runs the office, and Ray runs the dairy. And they all fill in for each other in between. Though technically retired, Bill and Cecile are never far away — Cecile still frets, Bill still helps unload trucks, and advice just keeps on coming.
This year, their third season of selling ice cream, they opened for the summer on a dreary, cold April day. Even so, the line curled out to the street and within six hours, 300 gallons had been punched into sugar cones, swirled into shakes, and packed into quarts. “They wait all winter for our ice cream,” says Paul, who makes only a very limited amount of ice cream between October and March. Paul says he is still surprised that the idea of turning their leftovers into ice cream went over so well. “Lewiston’s got a lot of other ice cream places, you know, the usual chain stores. I guess the folks like it that ours is made fresh and made locally.”
In the Cote family there is never a shortage of ice cream, which is fortunate because there are constant occasions such as communions, graduations, birthday parties: ice cream affairs. Once or twice, when it seemed that the immediate family, which had grown to 22, had outgrown the house, they tried renting a hall for family gatherings. But no more. “We like it at home, no matter how crowded.”
Bill and Cecile now spend their winters in Florida, but they are always sure to return the week before Mother’s Day, a celebration with more impact than Thanksgiving in the Cote family. Cecile admits that she has a hard time staying away from the family that long. Her home is still her workshop, the ironing board loaded with curtains to be finished, an exercycle in the living room, and around her overstuffed armchair the projects of all grandmothers: needlepoint and afghans, The view out her picture window is of the dairy. It is a constant source of contentment to have her family all around her. Though she insists that business always comes before family, she adds, “My life is my family. The more the merrier. We have a lot of friends, but they are strangers, you know. They are not family.”
Both Bill and Cecile agree that their three sons are carrying on the business pretty much the way they would. Except, Cecile points out, “They are much more daring. I didn’t want them to open the second ice cream stand. One was enough, I knew it would be so much extra work for them. But, already, they are talking about opening a third stand. I don’t know! They’re going to have to find another family just to make the ice cream!”
This is a Yankee Classic Article from August, 1981.