LITTLE BALKANS CHRONICLES — PICCO and the quest for the spotted ball

J.T. Knoll

Pittsburg Ice Cream Company (PICCO), located at the corner of Olive and Park in Pittsburg, was opened by William Shifferdecker in 1918 and operated continuously until 1990, the last 54 years under the ownership of Charles and Beverly Tustin.

I visited with Beverly (now 91) by phone last week. When I mentioned the Terry Bartlow spotted ball story that follows she got tickled with the memory of the kids putting their pennies in the gumball machine (she still has it).

I also asked about the pros and cons of owning and operating PICCO. “Well, the long hours and equipment breakdowns were the negatives,” she said. “The positives were all the people I got to know. There’s been lots of times I was at someplace like Walmart, back when I got out more, that someone would stop me and ask, 'Aren’t you the PICCO lady?'”

For generations of area residents, just hearing or seeing the name PICCO created a flashback and bittersweet longing to stroll through its plate glass doors into its intoxicating mix of flavored syrup, carbonated water, lime, candy, and ice cream.

Terry’s story below, written when he was teaching at Lakeside Elementary, captures it well. As PICCO delivered their products to grocery stores in a 30-mile radius, I sometimes ate their ice cream purchased at Pallucca’s in Frontenac, but the ’55 Chevy, summer evening family trips to PICCO for ice cream were the best. I too sought the elusive spotted ball as a kid, but I did my gambling on the gumball machine at Fedell’s Drug Store in Frontenac.

PICCO was still open, just three blocks from my house, when I moved back to Pittsburg from Chicago in 1980. So I had the next generation pleasure of walking with my young sons to get ice cream cones, sundaes, and the best-ever cherry limeades there.

My oldest son, a Lakeside Elementary student when PICCO’s doors closed for the final time in 1990, wrote a letter of lament to the editor of the Morning Sun that ended, “It will be hard to look at PICCO from now on.” He was right. And even though the building has been razed and a home now sits on the lot, it still is. — J.T.K.

When I was attending Lakeside Elementary School in the mid-1950s, there was a very special gumball machine in my hometown. It was the most fascinating and enticing thing for a young boy or girl to see.

For inside of it, along with hundreds of regularly colored gum balls, were several “spotted gum balls”, and if you were lucky enough to receive one of these; WOW!!!!!!!!

This “dream machine” was located at one of the most popular spots in Pittsburg: PICCO, which was otherwise known as the Pittsburg Ice Cream Company.

PICCO made its own dairy products, ice creams, and had one of he best soda fountains on the face of this earth. If you were lucky enough to secure one of those elusive spotted balls with your penny, then you could trade it in at the soda fountain for one of the “daily specials.”

Depending on what day of the week it was, that special might be a banana split, ice cream sundae, root beer float, ice cream soda or a mountainous double dipper cone.

I’m not sure through the summers how many pennies my best friends and I pumped into that machine, but the deal among the very best friends was that if one of us hit the jackpot, so to speak, then all of the friends present would share in the sweet and delicious treasure treat of that day.

We always hoped that if someone won, the special would be the banana split as it was much bigger than any of the other specials, and had lots of extra goodies on it, thus allowing the gang to have more to share and eat!

What a great way to spend part of a hot summer day! Looking at the few spotted balls and dreaming of what might be if one of them were to fall into the gum tray! All it took was a few pals, some pennies and good luck.

PICCO is now long gone except for part of the driveway that led to the entrance of the soda fountain. But the memory of those days and that fabulous spotted ball gum machine will last the rest of my life, and the lives of many of my dear and best childhood friends of the 1950s in Pittsburg.

I wonder if I still have one of those spotted balls somewhere mixed in with other stuff from my childhood? Doubtful. I probably couldn’t have resisted trading it in immediately, and sharing the treat with one or more of my pals.

I’m currently a substitute teacher in the Pittsburg school system and often think of how good one of those PICCO soda fountain treats would taste right after work.

— Terry Bartlow

If you have a remembrance and/or photo to share, send it — along with your name, address and phone number — by email to jtknoll@swbell.net or by land mail to 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. You can phone and text photos to 620-704-1309. — J.T.K.