By Catie Joyce-Bulay
Photographed by David Waddell
From our August 2022 issue
With its classic red-and-white trim, angular glassy front, and nightly neon glow, the Island Dairy Treat looks like it time-traveled straight from the 1950s, and in a sense, it has. This summer marks 70 years since the roadside ice-cream stand opened in Skowhegan, on an island in a bend of the Kennebec River, above a hydroelectric dam. Not much has changed about the place, and on a recent warm afternoon, some dozen families, young and old, were sitting around picnic tables shaded by maples, much as families have done for generations. One woman tried, without much success, to school her young daughter on licking around the cone to keep the chocolate-vanilla swirl from dripping, but sticky fingers are a rite of summer here.
Jason Curtis, a lifelong Skowhegan resident, recalls perfectly the summer he finally grew tall enough to see over the counter to order his favorite vanilla soft serve. Many years later, in 2017, he and his wife, Shannon, bought the stand. She also frequented it as a kid, and she slung cones in high school. Now, they sell Maine-made Shaker Pond hard serve and a rotating selection of homemade soft serve. The strawberry soft serve is a perennial customer favorite — it’s the same recipe, with juice from local berries, that Shannon remembers from her high-school days. She’s a special-ed teacher, and all six prior owners were teachers too, including the first, Mr. Nadeau, who taught at the middle school that used to be next door.
The Curtises have a photo of the building from when it was swamped in a 1987 flood (as the story goes, the Dairy Treat still opened the next day). Jason, sitting at a picnic table, flipped through his phone to find it. “The high-water line marked the wall like a growth chart, until the previous owner painted over it,” he said, a little rueful. As he scrolled through more pictures of the shop, a woman heading back to her car waved and called out, “You’re a bad influence! But at least I can share it with him,” holding out her cone for her small dog.
The Curtises’ only two employees had the day off, for their high-school graduation, so Jason and Shannon were working the window with their daughter, Sydney, who’s studying to be a physical therapist but had a break from clinical rotations. She’s been scooping since she was 14 — and when her parents had cold feet about whether to buy the place, she was the one who nudged them in the right direction: “Nope, sorry, you already told me — you have to buy it!” she insisted. Their son, Drake, stationed in the Southwest with the Maine National Guard this summer, has helped out over the years too.
On the wall above tubs of hard serve, a bright painting Sydney made of the ice-cream stand hangs next to another painting, by a customer, presented as a thank-you for delivering his orders carhop-style after he broke his leg last summer. Meanwhile, outside, a little girl was staring at a boy’s cone of soft serve with a timeless, unmistakable look of envy on her face, and one had to imagine the Dairy Treat has many good decades yet ahead.