Walter Fullwood strode up to the window of the Snowball Stand in Woodstock on a recent, steamy afternoon and handed over a bag of four "empties" before placing his carryout order.
One of the stand's original customers, he has made weekly summer pilgrimages from his Ellicott City home of 42 years to the nearby rural spot since it opened in 1975. He has also made a habit of returning the cardboard containers as a courtesy.
Fullwood requested four of the 101 varieties of the tasty treat Tuesday, including chocolate with a center of marshmallow for his wife, Marilyn, and plain vanilla for Winston, their 2-year-old Australian shepherd.
"He looks for his as soon as I walk in the door," said Fullwood, 85, explaining that he dumps the icy confection into the dog's bowl when he gets home. "He's been eating it since he was a puppy, and he loves it!"
Winston is far from the only one who looks forward to a regular fix of flavored crushed ice from the stand, which began life as a gas station in 1938 and is listed on the state's historic register.
Jin Han and Julia Townsend like to share one medium-size snowball — "which is just the right amount" — but don't need to hash over their options since they prefer a blend of plum and peach flavorings unadulterated by toppings, which run the gamut from crushed candy bars to gummy bears.
Bryan Martinelli, a Marriotts Ridge High School senior and former employee, popped in to retrieve an unusual spearmint-watermelon mixture for his girlfriend, Alanna Diffendal.
"You two need to name that combination so we can post it on our board," said co-owner Michele "Miky" Hill, who purchased the business at Route 99 and Woodstock Road with her husband, Tim Hill, in 2006.
"She calls it 'The Dino' since that's kind of her nickname," Martinelli replied with a shrug and smile.
Former owner Linda Luber said homemade flavorings are a hallmark of the stand, and she gives Hill credit for seizing on the opportunity to personalize a customer's unusual creation. The lengthy list of single-flavor choices already includes cinnamon, which is spicy, and wedding cake, which tastes like icing.
"We used to conduct blind taste-tests on our employees," Luber said. "They were very outspoken and always knew if we'd taken a shortcut or made a change. They taught us the old way was the tried-and-true way."
Luber said the Hills are the perfect family to have taken over the stand, especially since they have nine children who are home-schooled, or were, before they hit college age. Jamie, Andrew and Mary have "retired"; Peter, Abby, John and Madeline all currently work at the stand; Matthew and Julie are the last two waiting to be old enough to take their turns behind the counter.
"When I owned it, I was a single mom with a 5-year-old son, and it was definitely a lot of work," said Luber, who still lives with her son, Alex, in nearby Waverly and has stayed close to the Hill family. "Miky and the kids have truly embraced the whole business."
Contemporary concoctions that mix old-time favorites have taken off at the stand, like "The SpongeBob," which is named for the popular cartoon character and includes pineapple, lemon and coconut syrups, said the owners' son and current stand manager, Peter Hill, 19.
SpongeBob's cohort, Patrick, has his own popular snowball, a mixture of cotton candy and sky blue, which is one of those hard-to-define but ubiquitous flavors, said Peter, who has followed in his older siblings' footsteps.
"Teens are so creative, and they plug into their humor," said Miky, noting an employee had recently christened his signature blend of cotton candy, sour grape and raspberry, "The SweeTart."
She favors fruity flavors like cherry-limeade or guava, she said.
Peter brought the business' marketing strategy into the 21st century when he became manager three years ago by starting a blog, adding a Twitter account and creating a Facebook page to encourage the social-media generation.
He regularly posts such information as the flavor of the day (FOTD), pricing specials like the occasional Twitter discount, and fundraisers like the recent one that benefitted the Women's Giving Circle of Howard County. Fans constantly chime in to discuss what flavors they like and don't like and why.
One recent exchange found three Facebook friends agreeing that egg custard with marshmallow is "where it's at!" Another reader proclaimed she might "die and go to heaven" after sampling an apricot snowball with marshmallow topping.
But like anything subjective in life, the flavor some people think is incredible is the world's worst to other customers, Peter said. Almost no one liked butter crème, though, so it was removed from the menu and made a more infrequent FOTD.
All the kids know they're fortunate to have built-in summer employment.
"This is the coolest job you could ever have," said Peter, adding that he reconnects with friends from his past at the stand all the time.
Mary, the previous manager, who's now in the process of applying to nursing school, said: "We all figured we may as well work here because we'd be coming here with our friends anyway."
Because Hill home-schools her kids, and since they're all so friendly and polite, past owners of the stand found them exceptionally appealing prospects for employment because they might be available to work hours that students of public or private schools couldn't, Luber said.
Hill concurred, saying, "I came to feel that working at the stand was another component of my kids' overall education."
She tells job applicants that she can teach them how to make a snowball, but can't teach them to be warm and friendly.
"A snowball served with a smile will taste better. I firmly believe it changes the experience," she said.
"Society needs to take more time to step back and chill. Sitting under our mature trees with a snowball and taking in the bucolic view is like going on a 20-minute vacation."