The recipe for ice cream at Simmons General Store isn't written down, but Estie Simmons' descendants know it well enough: Keep it simple, keep it fresh, keep it secret. And go easy on the sugar.
"I'll never change it. I'd stop making it before I'd change," says Jean Neudecker, 50, the only grandchild of Estie Simmons. The future of the store is in Jean's hands, and she holds it close to her heart.
The rural crossroads called Snydersburg isn't even on most road maps. It's in northern Carroll County, at least 45 minutes away from Baltimore, but city people hear about Simmons. They'll make a trek for something homemade and old-fashioned, and they find it in a store that is part museum, part rural sanctuary.
The stuff that comes out of the machine in the basement of the store is American ice cream in its purest form. The names of the flavors are no more catchy than this: vanilla and chocolate. The family keeps one fruit flavor on hand at a time, usually something in season. The raspberries come from a Manchester farmer who sets aside a few rows just for them.
But the real showcase for Estie's recipe is the sublime, unadorned vanilla. Ice cream can get a lot fancier than this, but not better. Just enough sugar to carry the flavor of the vanilla bean without smothering it. Ice cream with the accent on cream. The texture is soft, and the temperature not so cold that it numbs your taste buds -- they won't want to miss anything. One lick, and you're hooked.
The confection is as comforting as the pastoral setting of the white clapboard house on Snydersburg Road just south of Hampstead. The store is attached to the Simmons family home. You can tell by the beige painted metal sign and the gas pump in front, although the store no longer sells gasoline.
Jean's parents, Phillip and Marjorie Nagle, have owned and operated the store since Marjorie's parents died in the 1960s. Mrs. Nagle still scoops most of the ice cream they sell, but her age and Mr. Nagle's health would make it impossible to keep the store going without help from Jean and her family.
Customers marvel that the store stays in business, as if it's too good to be true. When out-of-towners call nearby Cascade Lake, a swim resort, they always ask, "Is that ice cream place still open?" says Cascade owner Susanne Flynn.
"To have a place like this is really special," says frequent customer Nancy Hagert, 18, of Hampstead. "You wish you could keep it here forever and not ruin it."
Growth has not touched Snydersburg -- when you sit on the green benches of the small front porch to savor your ice cream, all you see across the street is a farm, a few houses and a church. But Ms. Hagert lives about three miles away, where suburban development has dotted the landscape with pastel ranchers.
Naomi Porterfield, 92, has been coming to Simmons since she moved to Hampstead in 1934. On a hot day this summer, she found her way back.
"Well, I haven't had any raspberry ice cream in so many years," Mrs. Porterfield says. "Do you have some?"
It was her lucky day. Mrs. Porterfield ordered two quarts. Between her and Mrs. Nagle stood the ice cream freezer, a large white chest with two hinged metal doors on top. Mrs. Nagle reached in with an aluminum paddle and packed the raspberry-studded ice cream into plastic quart containers. She mounded it high into a dome, stuck a sheet of waxed paper on top and wrapped it in yesterday's Carroll County Times. Then she did the same for the second quart.
Mrs. Nagle tells Mrs. Porterfield how a Baltimore family came by the day before. They said they'd read about the place four years ago, and had been looking for it ever since. They once stopped someone in Hampstead for directions, and the person said they'd never heard of Snydersburg.
"It must have been a new person," Mrs. Porterfield guesses.
"Hampstead's changed a lot. Hardly know anybody anymore," Mrs. Nagle says.
Back in the early 1920s, when everyone still knew everyone, four of the farm families living in Snydersburg took turns visiting each other on Saturday nights. When it was Estie Simmons' turn to be hostess, she made what she knew best: ice cream. She had the hand for it, adding just enough sugar so it didn't overtake the flavor of the rich cream skimmed by a nearby farmer. She developed a reputation.
"They said, 'Estie, why don't you open up and sell your ice cream?' " recalls Mrs. Nagle, now 78.
Estie and Joseph did just that. They built their house in 1923, and the store a few years later. Joe Simmons stocked the staples of the day: flour and sugar, muslin and oilcloth, hog feed and binder twine. But everyone knew the store for its ice cream. Joe and Estie made it together in the basement, in a wooden barrel filled with ice and rock salt. The ingredients went into a metal cylinder wedged into the ice. A belt they rigged up to a motor turned the paddle.
All through the years, the building's sign declared general store, as the property passed from Estie and Joe to their daughter and son-in-law, Philip.