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Sterling royalty

STERLING – What do the origin of McDonald’s, a popular malt mixer, and square ice cream scoops have in common?

Sterling is part of their story.

Younger folks don’t remember a time when there was a place in Sterling where ice cream cones were a square deal, and so was a meal – a burger for a dime? You bet.

But ask an older generation and they’ll recall fondly the days of the distinctive scoops atop a cone, the “One-in-a-Million” malts, and Steakburgers, all under one small roof that looked more like a castle than a fast food restaurant: Prince Castle in downtown Sterling.

Digging into an ice-cold creamy treat was a special occasion for generations of kids in town, and their parents, too. For some it was a daily ritual.

Twin Cities’ ice cream lovers have Earl Prince to thank for that – two Earl Princes, in fact, father and son.

In addition to serving food, Prince Castles also manufactured its own line of ice cream equipment; namely, the square scoops and the Multimixer – a machine that proved to be the seed to the establishment of McDonald’s by a Multimixer salesman.

The elder Prince started the Prince Castles chain – officially Prince Ice Cream Castles – in DeKalb in 1928, and after just a couple of decades, more locations popped up throughout northern Illinois and Chicagoland. After he died in 1960, his son Earl took over the business and ran it for a couple of more decades until the 1980s. The younger Earl died Nov. 26, 2020, at 93.

Evelyn Nieman, inset, ready to scoop up a treat at DeKalb's Prince Castle, background. The business stood on the east side of First Street, between Lincoln Highway and Locust Street. The photos are approximately dated 1939. Thanks to Nieman's family for the photos.

Evelyn Nieman, inset, ready to scoop up a treat at DeKalb’s Prince Castle, background. The business stood on the east side of First Street, between Lincoln Highway and Locust Street. The photos are approximately dated 1939. Thanks to Nieman’s family for the photos. (Photo provided/)

The younger Earl’s daughter, Cyd, remembers going on many of her father’s business trips throughout the state, and there always seemed to be some ice cream involved.

“He was always working during the week,” Cyd said. “He would travel into the Chicago area often and visit all of the castles often. He wanted to make sure things were going the way they should be.”

Between the time Earl spent with business and family, he was active in the community and enjoyed teeing off with the best golfers at Rock River Country Club.

“I’ve never heard a negative word about Dad ever, ever,” Cyd said. “Everybody seems to love Dad. He was just one of those guys who just got you.

“He was the best dad ever. He was always the good guy. Mom was the one who would be mad with us.”

Prince Castles formed with the combination of several ideas, and it ended with several businesses and tools it developed growing stronger even after the restaurant chain’s demise.

The elder Earl Prince and Walter Fredenhagen, both originally from Downers Grove, each had an early liking to the cold, creamy ice cream treat as children. Fredenhagen later operated an ice cream plant in the west central Illinois town of Rushville, and Prince went into the restaurant business in DeKalb.

DeKalb’s folks loved their new restaurant, and it attracted customers from outside the community. The success inspired Prince to open multiple locations throughout northern Illinois. The winning ingredient? Fredenhagen’s Frozen Gold brand of ice cream out of Rushville.

The friendship between Prince and Fredenhagen not only paved the way for their businesses’ success, but also the growth of Prince’s family. One particular trip to Rushville, before Prince started his restaurants, proved to be special: Earl’s wife, Marion, gave birth to their son, Earl, there on Nov. 13, 1927.

The Great Depression couldn’t cool off Prince’s business dreams, and when he set off to create his own ice cream plant in 1930, Sterling became the place when Prince moved his headquarters there. The plant sat at the end of Second Avenue across the railroad tracks from Lawrence Brothers, and its headquarters and warehouse was on the northwest corner of Second Avenue and Second Street.

Prince also dealt in ice and coal sales early on. He oversaw the Prince Castles locations west of Chicagoland, and Fredenhagen took care of the rest.

Prince didn’t start a restaurant in Sterling until shortly after he came to town, and the one he built at the southeast corner of West Fifth Street and Avenue B looked like the rest of the Prince Castles buildings – small, limestone blocks with crenellations at the top. The small structure eventually gave way in the late 1940s to a larger one with similar stone, which came from the Emerson quarry. By that time, Prince’s menu expanded from creamy treats to standard American restaurant fare such as hamburgers and french fries.

Prince Castle used square dippers for better portion control and to reduce waste. The square scoop could get more ice cream out of a container than a round one.

“Dad was a total perfectionist,” Cyd said. “He wanted everything to be just right, and he wouldn’t stop until it was.”

It also was the first ice cream business to have see-through cabinets that allowed customers to watch the ice cream being scooped. In its earliest days, two pints of ice cream cost just 10 cents.

The chain also created special treats based on special occasions. The Dionne Quintuplets were born in 1936, and the intrigue of that inspired Prince and Fredenhagen to create the 15-cent quintuplet banana split: five scoops of ice cream with two slices of bananas and choice of fruit; and chocolate, butterscotch, or marshmallow toppings.

In an effort to find a more efficient way to keep up with the growing demand for the chain’s ever-popular “One-In-A-Million” thick malts, Prince developed a multi-mixing machine that could make as any as six malts at one time. The machines were manufactured in Sterling and used at the Prince Castles locations, and eventually many other restaurants that sold ice cream. World War II manufacturing limitations reduced subsequent models of the Multimixer to five spindles.

One of Prince’s salesmen tasked to sell the Multimixer throughout the country eventually became famous for his own popular fast food restaurant: Ray Kroc.

Kroc, then a paper cup distributor, approached Prince one day about paper cup business. During that visit, Kroc was fascinated with the Multimixer and eventually worked for Prince to sell them. On a trip to California in the early 1950s, Kroc sold these mixers to a family chain of restaurants owned by the McDonald family. Like he did with his initial meeting with Prince, Kroc came away fascinated with the business model of the McDonald family, and eventually opened up a McDonald’s hamburger stand in suburban Des Plaines in 1955. The rest is fast food history.

Sterling’s fast food history, however, isn’t complete without Prince Castle.

Cyd and her brother, Pat, worked for their father at times; Pat more than Cyd, who has fond memories of serving hungry customers for one summer in the early 1970s while a junior in high school.

“The smell of the food, I loved making those hamburgers and fries,” Cyd said. “Letting people just have fun. It was a fun place to me. There was no stress, and everyone was always so happy when they were coming in. They just loved the food, they really did.”

Ironically, the growth of fast food chains like McDonald’s eventually eclipsed that of Prince Castle by the 1980s. By then, Prince Castles restaurants all but disappeared; only five were left by 1980. The Sterling location was sold and renamed The Kastle and operated until 1991 when Sterling’s downtown was targeted for redevelopment, and the iconic building was in the crosshairs. After an effort to preserve it fell through, it was razed in 1992.

Several hints of Prince Castles’ legacy continue to exist. Several former castle-shaped buildings have been preserved, including ones in Dixon (now BBY Chicken), Rockford and Ottawa. Manufacturing of the Multimixer eventually was passed over to Sterling Multi Products in Prophetstown, which continues to make the machine. The original toffee recipe that gave Prince Castle ice cream its distinctive flavor, in topping form, continues to be sold seasonally as Z-Best Toffee, made in Amboy.

Peace and Dave Keely install sod in front of the former Prince Castle ice cream shop they are restoring at 673 W. Main St. in Ottawa.

Peace and Dave Keely install sod in front of the former Prince Castle ice cream shop they are restoring at 673 W. Main St. in Ottawa. (Charles Stanley/)

The last vestige of Prince Castles restaurants ceased to be in 2008. The elder Prince died in 1960, and Fredenhagen split his group of Prince Castle restaurants closer to Chicagoland into Cock Robin – its last location was in suburban Brookfield.

Memories of deliciousness still are fresh in the minds of many in the Twin Cities. The restaurant is a popular subject on a Facebook group dedicated to the history of Sterling and Rock Falls, and the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society has a display of Prince Castles artifacts.

“People still talk about the Prince Castle all of the time,” Cyd said. “It’s just amazing, just amazing after all these years, and they still talk about it and post memories of it. It was quite a thing, for sure.

“It’s been 40 years, and people are still talking about it. It’s crazy.”

See the documentary

The origin of Prince Castles was nearly 100 years ago when Earl Prince and Walter Fredenhagen started their ice cream stores made out of limestone and shaped like a small castle.

Naperville Community Television produced a documentary in 2015 about the history of Prince Castles, and its later suburban history as Cock Robin.

Go to nctv17.com/documentaries/one-in-a-million-doc to view the documentary.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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