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Ann Arbor business celebrates 85 years

Flickr User Chika Nadya

Where whipped cream is sprayed on sundaes, and milkshakes are mixed in the blender, generations of customers have been visiting Ann Arbor’s Washtenaw Dairy on South Ashley St. on the city’s old west side since 1934. Currently owned by Mary “Dairy” Raab and her husband John, what started out as an Ann Arbor milk manufacturer when dairy farmers brought milk and it was bottled in the back, is now known as a community gathering place that serves huge scoops of ice cream and donuts. Lots of donuts!

“We make them ourselves, every day. There’s only a couple days a year we don’t make them, but every other day we make them. We average about a hundred dozen donuts a day.”

Raab says that the Washtenaw dairy stopped making its own ice cream back in 1965 but is still a redistributor of dairy products to local businesses who don’t have as much storage space as they do, in a building which was originally used to manufacture pharmaceutical products and later turned into a car repair shop. That’s when the building was first built in 1910 and is a reminder of when businesses were located in neighborhoods according to Raab.

“It’s in the historic district here in Ann Arbor, so, you know, it’ll always be here and it’ll always look pretty much the way that it looks now. There can be very little done to historic buildings at this point in time.”

She says Washtenaw Dairy is “legendary” for its community building and memory making as a lot of graduations and family celebrations and even engagements have taken place there, adding a University of Michigan student even wrote her PHD thesis on the place!

“It was kind of interesting, and the whole community aspect of… she changed everybody’s titles, but if you knew much about who’s who you could figure it out.”

Gary Weeks graduated from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor 40 years ago and visited often when he was a child. He now brings his granddaughters Reagan and Madison for a fourth generation ice cream eating experience in the same place where it first opened 85 years ago.

“These are my grand babies, I’m 58 years old, and my uncle owns two houses within two blocks of here, so we used to come down here when we were kids all the time. Great memories. Family, coming down with my mom, my grandma, my grandpa, and my dad. Always been good ice cream.”

Raab says Washtenaw Dairy is one of the first “third places” where people came to gather. Home, work, and some place else. And this was that someplace else before coffee shops became popular.

“Most of the hanging out is in the morning, it just seems to be like that. Although, there are certain people that come every Sunday afternoon, and they buy their New York Times, and have their two donuts… they buy six, eat two, and have a cup of coffee and read their New York Times… so it’s just, you know, it’s all sort of rituals that people have developed.”

Clifford Clarke was a tenured Wayne State University professor until he got sick: He’s been spending several hours a day at Ann Arbor’s Washtenaw Dairy, six days a week since 1981! He says it is like therapy for him.

“Because I got sick with depression, they want me out of the house, you know, and so this works out perfect. I come in here, if there’s a couple with children, I ask how old are the children, what school do they go to. So I have little conversations with people that come in here. And then I see some of the regulars every time and they ask me how I’m doing.”

Raab grew up around the Washtenaw Dairy as her uncle Gary Raab was a former owner, along with Jim Smith the second. That feeling of family extends not only to customers but to the people who work there as well. Bradley Smith is a student at Eastern Michigan University. This is his 9th consecutive summer working at Washtenaw Dairy

“So I moved to Ann Arbor when I was 11, and fell in love with Ann Arbor, and the decision to go to Eastern kind of came with that. I wasn’t quite ready to get away from Ann Arbor just yet, so I chose Eastern Michigan. I’ve been living in Ypsilanti for six years now, and I have 19 credits until I graduate.”

Smith said he just missed celebrating Washtenaw Dairy’s 75th anniversary by one year, but is looking forward to taking part in a community block party planned for the fourth of July with live music and food from 11 until 2. In preparation the Store is decorated with about a hundred handmade birthday cards from the community.

“Whole classrooms got together and made cards, but some of the messages are really sweet and special.”

Back to the statement that Washtenaw Dairy is legendary. ENCO#02002 Washtenaw Dairy :10 “Iconic is another word people use, and you know, just old time, and you know, a lot of history and all that. But we are legendary.” Now I get it… legen-DAIRY!