The story of Perkasie’s Ice Cream Age

There once was a time when Perkasie had two active wholesale ice cream factories in town. Both creameries were lost in disasters in the 1920s and their owners experienced hardships after their ice cream businesses shut down.

Fred B. Neff and Irwin P. Mensch ran the two factories on or near Chestnut Street, within one block of each other from 1902 to 1926, with a brief period of inactivity. Neff’s Ice Cream and Crescent Ice Cream were local staples and served at the finest locations in Perkasie and neighboring towns. However, they were not in business at the same time. The tragic end of Neff’s Ice Cream in 1926 closed out the borough’s Ice Cream era.

Ice Cream Sodas and Sundaes at Neamand’s Drug Store Counter

Neff’s Ice Cream

Fred B. Neff had a long history in the creamery business before he went into ice cream making in early 1902. Born in Hatfield, Fred later learned the creamery trade working for Abraham S. Benner in Perkasie, and he managed creameries in Northampton and Wayne counties. Fred and his family returned to Perkasie in 1899, when he bought a grocery store at Sixth and Chestnut Streets (that later became the Vogue Shop.) In 1901, Fred Neff sold the contents of the store and rented the space to another grocer. In early 1902, Fred set up Neff’s Ice Cream in the building behind his former grocery store on Sixth Street. Neff was also elected to Perkasie Borough council that year and was an early chairman of Perkasie’s Electric Light Committee.

Locations of Neff’s Ice Cream and Crescent Ice Cream

In 1911, Neff sold his Chestnut and Sixth Street property to Jonas Apfelbaum, who had been renting the house. Neff kept the back buildings for his ice cream business and used the sale proceeds to expand his factory. But in April 1918 came the shocking news that Fred Neff had sold his ice cream business to Irwin P. Mensch, who was the general manager of the Erie County Milk Association. Neff used the money to buy a larger creamery in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, which had 16 employees.

Neff’s Ice Cream ad, 1911

The Perkasie Central News expressed its shock at losing Neff’s business. “The town is indebted to Mr. Neff for having put Perkasie on the map as an ice cream center, and through progressive measures built up a fine business,” said the newspaper when Neff departed in January 1919.

Crescent Ice Cream

Irwin P. Mensch was born in Oley, Pennsylvania and went to several schools to learn penmanship and calligraphy. Mensch became a teacher at Mountain State College in West Virginia. Using his considerable penmanship skills, Mensch held several accounting jobs and became part of the creamery business in western Pennsylvania, where he was recognized as an expert in the financial side of the creamery trade.

Irwin Mensch, 1907

Mensch arrived in Perkasie in May 1918 and renamed Neff’s business as the “Crescent Ice Cream Company.” The company’s slogan was “Eat a Plate of Ice Cream Every Day.” Mensch soon bought adjacent land and built a two-story building as his new modern ice cream factory. The Crescent Ice Cream Company sold $150,000 in stock and $40,000 in bonds to finance the business expansion, which doubled its capacity to make ice cream.

Irwin Mensch quickly became a key figure in Perkasie Borough. Voters elected Mensch to Perkasie Borough council in 1919, where he was known to treat visitors to ice cream at council meetings. Mensch then became president of the Perkasie Chamber of Commerce. He spoke at Perkasie High School about proper penmanship. At the 1921 Perkasie Community Tree lighting, 400 children each received a brick of Crescent Ice Cream.

Crescent Ad, 1921

But in early 1922, the Crescent Ice Cream Company was sued by a vendor for nonpayment and the company went into receivership in August 1922 when it could not make its dividend payments to investors. To keep the business going, Perkasie Borough accepted Crescent Ice Cream stock when Mensch could not pay his electric bills. The company’s representatives were told to appear in court on November 13, 1922 to prove why its assets should not be sold at auction. But on November 8, a fire broke out at the ice cream plant, destroying its wooden buildings. Firefighters believe a defective transformer started the blaze. The loss was $20,000 and covered by insurance.

The Mensch property was sold at auction to the investors, which included the two-story brick building and a frame house at 525 Chestnut Street.  The Mensch family stayed in the frame home for a time. However, in 1925 Irwin Mensch’s mother, Emma, died in an accident when her clothing caught fire while she was burning rubbish outside. Workers restoring the damaged Crescent Ice Cream factory jumped over a fence and tried to put out the flames without success.

Fred Neff Returns To Perkasie

In October 1925 came the surprising news that the ice cream business was coming back to Perkasie. Fred Neff had struggled with his new business after a fire gutted his factory and Neff bought the former Perkasie Central News building near his old business at Sixth and Chestnut Streets. His son remained in Jersey Shore to run Neff’s other plant.

Neff began sales in January 1926 with the slogan, “Last but not least, it is made in Perkasie. Patronize your hometown industries.” The new Neff Ice Cream venture failed within a year.  Neff had Sterner’s Pharmacy and Slotter’s Grocery Store as retail outlets. However, a fire in May destroyed the factory’s supplies and Neff had a heart attack during the fire.

On December 13, 1926, a giant blast rocked Perkasie Borough and broke many glass windows on Chestnut Street. Most of the Neff Ice Cream factory was a pile of rubble. The building had two families as tenants. The Godwin family was in Philadelphia for the weekend. John Rosenberger had left for work at the Moyer-Keller Dairy, while his wife and baby were sleeping. The apartment was intact after the blast, and firefighters rescued an apparently unfazed Mrs. Rosenberger and her baby from a window. John Rosenberger’s co-worker, Leon Maurer, was near the building delivering milk. Maurer died several days later from injuries received when he was trapped under a fallen wall.

Leon Maurer, The Rosenbergers, and Explosion Damage

Investigators soon believed a fire had broken out in the building that led to a gas explosion. However, Neff and Rosenberger said they had smelled a “faint scent” of natural gas earlier that day. The Insurance Company of America denied any coverage since it believed there was no fire. After three years of legal fighting, in April 1930 Neff and his business partner, Jonas Apfelbaum, received a $1,039.67 settlement. By then, Neff took a job at the nearby Perkasie Ice Plant. Nine months later, Fred Neff died at the age of 68 in an industrial accident at the ice plant when he was struck by a large piece of equipment. His funeral at Trinity Lutheran Church in Perkasie was highly attended.

Irwin Mensch Greeting Card, 1906

By that point, Irwin P. Mensch had become a traveling salesman. He remained in Perkasie through the 1930s and eventually moved to Hereford, Pa. in 1940 where he became a clerk for the Boyertown Creamery. Later in life, Mensch became known for his 50-year career as a fraktur artist.  His works included a wooden desk annotated in fraktur script made from wood salvaged from Perkasie’s old First National Bank; a 70-page illustrated book done for the Schwenkfelder library; and many cards, certificates, and letters. As a hobby, Mensch would add fraktur script to Sell-Perk High School graduation certificates. Mensch’s works have been very collectible since his death in 1951.

Today, the only remaining building from the Ice Cream age is the last Crescent Ice Cream factory on Sixth Street, which only lost its roof in the 1922 fire. It sat vacant until realtor Jacob Horn bought the property in 1942 and converted it to apartments. Horn demolished the small frame house on Chestnut Street.

Mensch Fraktur, 1945. Source: Mennonite Heritage Center

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