The igloo on Zang: A history of the Polar Bear Ice Cream Co.

Polar Bear Ice Cream on Zang circa 1980. (Photo via the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League )
Polar Bear Ice Cream on Zang circa 1980. (Photo via the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League )

A windstorm damaged the iconic “igloo” building on Zang this past fall, and it’s uncertain whether the roadside restaurant building near Lake Cliff Park can be repaired.

01 OC sad polar bearwebh580pxThe building originally was constructed as a hamburger stand in the 1930s. It was one of many food stands on Zang that served visitors to the park, which at that time was an entertainment destination.

The Brigham family bought the igloo and turned it into the Polar Bear ice cream shop in 1946. That family company eventually would expand to dozens of Polar Bear locations in Oak Cliff and the Dallas suburbs; it was the predecessor to an international company called Pecan Deluxe that operates in the Oak Cliff area to this day.

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J.C. Brigham was a cousin in the Ashburn family, who founded a dairy in Dennison in 1901. The following generation of Ashburn sons — five of them — started ice cream shops in Dennison, Fort Worth and Dallas in 1928. In Dallas alone, there were 12 Ashburn’s ice cream shops, according to newspaper archives. Martin Ashburn moved to East Dallas to open the first Dallas store in 1935, but then he died seven years later at age 59.

J.C. Brigham’s first ice cream shop, at a nearby location on Zang, opened in 1941 and originally was known as Polar Bear Ashburn’s.

Brigham and his wife, Louise, lived in Kessler Stevens and later, Wynnewood North. Over the years, she served every part of the company, scooping ice cream, keeping the books and managing the company, which by the mid-1960s included several company stores and franchises. Polar Bear also ran its own batch plants, including one in a warehouse on Zang.

In 1950, the Brighams started Pecan Deluxe, producing “inclusions” for its ice cream. That is, candied nuts and fruit to be added to the creamy batches. Pecan Deluxe was on West Davis at Madison, adjacent to what is now Calvario Funeral Home in the Bishop Arts District. In a weird twist of fate, that building was demolished for a parking lot in November, four days before the igloo building was damaged in the storm.

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J.C. Brigham died in December 1965, and Louise continued working with their son, Adamson High School alumnus Bennie, who became president of the company in 1966; Louise was vice president. The mother/son team would expand the company from about 10 stores to about 65 within a few years. They opened the Polar Bear on Hampton at Illinois in July 1966, and the shop immediately became a go-to hangout for Oak Cliff teens; it was a vortex where kids from all of Oak Cliff’s high schools could meet.

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Polar Bear also had some longtime employees.

In 1977, The Dallas Morning News profiled 62-year-old Vernon Turner, who had worked at Polar Bear for 24 years. By that time, Polar Bear had 34 flavors. Turner had worked at the igloo on Zang before moving to the Hampton/Illinois store and then a new store in Desoto. Turner, who wore the ice-cream shop’s uniform of a striped shirt, white apron and Styrofoam boater hat, said he’d never gotten tired of ice cream in all those years.

Pecan Deluxe expanded in 1960, when it began selling ice-cream inclusions to other manufacturers.

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The Brigham family sold the Polar Bear Ice Cream Co. in 1983 to focus on the continued expansion of Pecan Deluxe. Bennie Brigham grew Pecan Deluxe’s sales throughout the United States, the United Kingdom and Thailand. In 1993, the privately held family company built a 60,000-square-foot production facility in the Lone Star industrial park just outside of Oak Cliff. Louise Brigham died in 2005 at age 86, and her obituary notes that she was the first woman voted into the Texas Dairy Industry Hall of Fame in 1995. According to the company’s website, the leadership of Pecan Deluxe passed to a third generation in 2014 when Bennie Brigham’s son, Jay, became president. He did not return our call seeking an interview for this story.

In 1986, Polar Bear still occupied the igloo on Zang, but by 1990, it had turned over to Casita Lupe, which in 1993 received a favorable review from The Dallas Morning News for its Tex-Mex. Casita Lupe operated for decades until new owners changed the hand-painted sign to “Casita Ludi” and added rainbow paint colors to the exterior. That café closed a couple of years ago.

Firebird Restaurant Group, the parent company of El Fenix, now owns the building. No word has come from them so far on the future of the now-damaged igloo that delighted generations of ice-cream loving Oak Cliffers.

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  • Christopher Yarmer

    I remember going to a PB Ashburns in Irving on the corner of Story and 183 when I was a kid. My mom doesn’t remember it so for the longest time I thought I was crazy lol. It opened before we got our first Baskin Robbins (Beltline/Rochelle which closed in the late ’80’s). Wow, I’m old. 😉

  • Cairenn Day

    It would be a great place for an upscale ice vream place

  • Dale Busbice

    *Denison

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  • Stephen Cumming

    I wonder what happened to all of the recipes of the various ice cream flavors after Polar Bear closed? They had to flavors that I remember so well – Banana Nut and Lemon Custard. I remember going to the Polar Bear at Hampton-Illinois with my paternal grandparents, and my grandmother would always get two dips in a cup – one dip each of Banana
    Nut and Lemon Custard. At one time, Blue Bell made a Lemon Custard in pint sizes that tasted quite close to the Polar Bear brand. It would be great if someone like Blue Bell would bring back some of the Polar Bear-Ashburns flavors.

  • Fred pena

    Thanks for this Rachel!