Latrobe seeks designation as birthplace of banana split

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So what comes to mind when you think of Latrobe? Arnold Palmer, certainly. And for many, Fred Rogers as well.

Now city administrators are working to add the banana split to the town's claim to fame. They've applied to the state Bureau of Historic Preservation for a historical marker to be erected downtown to designate the city as the birthplace of the extravagant ice cream concoction.

As the story goes, David Strickler, a 23-year-old pharmacy assistant, is credited with inventing the banana split in 1904 while working at Tassel Pharmacy on Ligonier Street in Latrobe. Part of the store was a pharmacy, and it had a small counter with about eight stools for drinks and ice cream, as many drugstores had in the days before fast-food chains.

Strickler liked to make different kinds of sundaes for his customers and he apparently made the treat much as it is served today:

A banana is sliced lengthwise in the bottom of a boat-shaped dish. Three scoops of ice cream -- vanilla, chocolate and strawberry -- come next, with pineapple, chocolate and strawberry sauces on top of those flavored scoops. Then, chopped nuts, lots of whipped cream and a maraschino cherry top the sugary delight.

Joe Greubel, 75, of Ligonier, known as "Ice Cream Joe," has been a fan of ice cream most of his life. He is chairman of the board and company spokesman for Valley Dairy restaurants.

And he remembers Strickler.

"He had a friend in Philadelphia, I think he was in medical school, and they would watch people selling things on the Atlantic City boardwalk. So he got the idea to be creative, and his friend helped spread the word about the banana split ...."

The original banana split reportedly was sold for 10 cents to a group of Saint Vincent College students. The Benedictine college is in nearby Unity.

Mr. Greubel said Strickler later bought the pharmacy and became an optometrist, with his offices on the second floor above the pharmacy.

Jarod Trunzo, community development coordinator for Latrobe, worked on gathering the documentation with city manager Alex Graziano to send to the state for the historical marker.

They have material from the National Ice Cream Retailers Association, which concluded that a majority of historians agree the banana split was indeed invented in Latrobe.

They also included a letter from Strickler in 1959 to the TV program, "I've Got a Secret," about his ice cream treat.

A letter from Saint Vincent College documents that its students around 1900 were some of the first to eat the banana split.

And they have a record of the 100th anniversary celebration in 2004 at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. Strickler was a Pitt graduate, and chancellor Mark Nordenberg signed a proclamation declaring it "National Banana Split Day."

According to Mr. Trunzo, the proclamation said students immediately found the treat "a-peel-ing," and Pitt officials hoped Strickler "gets his just desserts" in recognition.

In addition, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia gives Strickler credit for coming up with the treat.

Wilmington, Ohio, sometimes tries to claim the banana split title, Mr. Trunzo said. But, he said, the treat created in that town was more of a banana sundae, with a banana sliced up, rather than split longwise into two pieces. And the earliest record of the Ohio dessert was in 1907, three years later than in Latrobe.

Mr. Greubel said he met Strickler in the 1950s. "He played trombone in the Pitt Marching Band, so he often talked about the trombone.

"He had a good eye for desserts," he added.

The city submitted its application to the state three weeks ago, and Mr. Trunzo said they hoped to hear early next year.

"A team of 12 people review it, and we sent 12 copies of a 23-page packet," he said.

Mr. Greubel's family knows a lot about the ice cream business. His great-grandfather began the first commercial ice cream manufacturing enterprise in 1884 at his bakery in Derry Borough. And in 1938, his father opened the first Valley Dairy along Main Street in Latrobe, which was largely a sit-down dairy store that offered ice cream, candy and newspapers. Today, 12 Valley Dairy restaurants are in Western Pennsylvania. Mr. Greubel is now chairman of the board and spokesman for the company.

He often can be seen at local parades during the year, dressed in his red-and-white striped vest and straw skimmer, an outfit that is reminiscent of what members of a turn-of-the-last-century barbershop quartet might wear.

"I like to put a smile on people's faces," he said.

He believes the Valley Dairy in downtown Latrobe may be the only place left in the borough that serves a banana split.

At the restaurant chain's Unity store in Lowe's Plaza, 25-foot murals depict Strickler, Arnold Palmer and Fred Rogers, he said.

Mr. Greubel remembers the days when people flocked to Latrobe.

He said another drugstore was directly across Main Street from their family's restaurant and three movie houses were in the town when he was growing up in the 1940s.

"My dad said everyone came to Latrobe on a Saturday night, and he could sell 2,000 ice cream cones on a good night," he said.

If Latrobe is awarded the historical marker from the state, the city will add it to the site of Strickler's Pharmacy at 805 Ligonier St. Mr. Trunzo said the Latrobe Foundation bought the old property and had the building torn down. They've added benches, trees and flowers, he said.

Latrobe officials hope to make the banana split part of their community celebrations in the future.

"This year, for the first time, we had a Steelers Festival," Mr. Trunzo said. "The Steelers play a scrimmage game at Latrobe High School stadium each year [as part of training camp at Saint Vincent College]. So we had the festival that day, with rock climbing and vendors and face painting, and 13,000 people came.

"We had an ice cream booth and a Banana Split Eating Contest. We want to keep that going annually and have a booth at our Fourth of July celebration and our Autumn Festival,'' he said.

"Ice Cream Joe" also would love to see ice cream enthusiasts flocking to Latrobe.

'I think they should have a giant statue of a banana split that people can come and have their picture taken with," he said.

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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