It may be early autumn, but the summer-like heat hasn't gone away. And when the sun bakes the Kansas plains, few things are as refreshing as the half-frozen drink known as the ICEE. Generations of Americans have enjoyed these icy-cold, flavored beverages, but few people know about the rural Kansas man who invented them. Luckily, we have Guest Commentator Ron Wilson to fill us in.
Guest Commentator Ron Wilson is the director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University. He writes about all kinds of cool Kansans in his series Kansas Profiles.
Editor's note: After this piece was recorded and produced, KPR learned that members of the Knedlik family pronounce the "K" in their last name, like KUH-ned-lik. We regret the mispronunciation in the audio version of this commentary.
(TRANSCRIPT) This transcript differs slightly from the audio version above, which was edited for radio.
Omar Knedlik is the founder of what became the ICEE company. Here is his story. According to the Kansapedia website of the Kansas State Historical Society, Omar Knedlik was born in Barnes, Kansas, in 1916 and grew up on a nearby farm. Barnes is located in Washington County, southwest of Marysville. Omar served in World War II and returned to Kansas. He used his military pay to purchase an ice cream shop. He tried various other business ventures such as hotels and in the late 1950s, bought a Dairy Queen franchise in Coffeyville.
According to legend, he didn’t really have a working soda fountain in his store. Instead, when the weather got hot outside, he improvised by putting bottles of Coke in his freezer and selling them to customers super-cooled and halfway frozen. He noticed that his customers loved the icy drink. He started advertising it as the “coldest drink in town,” and it was a big.
Omar Knedlik’s innovative mind went to work. He wondered if he could devise a machine that could create and dispense a similar frozen carbonated beverage on demand. He tinkered with an old ice cream machine until he came up with a device that produced a slushy, icy drink.
Omar took his primitive machine to a company in Texas to refine and produce it. It took him five years to develop a machine which could produce drinks with the slushy consistency that he wanted. He received a patent for it in 1960.
Omar debated what to name the product. A local artist and friend developed the idea of the name ICEE, complete with a logo including snow and icicles hanging on the letters.
The Texas company built and sold about 300 models of the ICEE machine. According to the ICEE Distributors website, the company was soon faced with “an avalanche of sales orders and an overwhelming volume of field service and customer service requests.”
In 1965, the 7-Eleven company bought several ICEE machines and the company took off. The convenience store chain later changed the name of its product to Slurpee. If you have ever heard the sound of a car full of kids enjoying those drinks through straws, you can guess the reason why.
The products have proven immensely popular. Today, there are many variations of the product such as Italian ice and other semi-frozen concoctions in fruit or soda flavors. The ICEE company, now headquartered in California, estimates that 500 million ICEEs are sold each year. In other words, that is half a billion ICEEs – with a B as in, boy, that’s a lot of cold drinks. ICEEs are sold coast-to-coast in the United States and in Canada, Mexico, China and the Middle East.
ICEE has about 850 employees in the U.S., Mexico and Canada and has more than 100 service centers across the nation.
There are 32 ICEE flavors but the most popular are said to be cherry, blue raspberry, and cola. (Cherry is the best, based on a scientific survey of me and my kids.)
Omar Knedlik was witness to the explosion in the popularity of this product. He eventually moved his family to Joplin, Missouri, where he passed away in 1989 at age 73.
Several generations of hot, thirsty families would be grateful for his innovation and creativity which produced this refreshing drink. It’s quite an accomplishment for a farm boy from the rural community of Barnes, Kansas, population 148 people. Now, that’s rural.
When the weather is hot outside, what is so refreshing as a flavorful, half-frozen drink? We commend Omar Knedlik for making a difference by creating this concoction – so cold that it is icy.