Yarnell's: 75 Years And Going Strong (Fifth Monday)

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Jul. 30, 2007 12:00 am  

Some of the faces behind Yarnell's, the 75-year-old ice cream company based in Searcy.

The reasons for Yarnell's longevity lie in a bit of a paradox: The firm has remained both disciplined and adaptable, with the family plowing profits back into the business and learning to adapt to the changing marketplace by updating both the company's technology and its business model.

The Yarnell family, as individuals and as a unit, has also served their community and their state, providing a model for other family-run companies.

And finally, there's the product. As Albert Yarnell and more than one Yarnell's employee said, ice cream is almost recession-proof. Even during the Depression, people would allow themselves and their families the small comfort of ice cream. It is an inexpensive distraction, sweetness in a world gone sour.

Pioneer Stock

Albert Yarnell is a great-grandson of Thomas J. Rogers, who came to White County in 1848, according to the White County Historical Society. He became a merchant in Searcy in the 1850s but lost everything during the Civil War. After the war, he started buying land and by 1890 owned 20,000 acres in White and Cleburne counties, the Historical Society's Web site says.

The "Searcy Centennial: 1837-1937," written by A.P. Strother Sr., had a "supporting committee" that included Hallie Rogers Yarnell (Ray's wife and Albert's mother) and an index that listed a slew of Yarnells.

The plant that evolved into the Yarnell Ice Cream Co. began as the Grisham Ice Cream Co. in 1923. It sold its product as Angel Food Ice Cream. In 1927, Grisham merged with the Terry Dairy Co., and General Manager Ben Grisham hired Ray Yarnell as assistant manager, luring him away from a local hardware store.

In 1929, Grisham sold out to Southwest Dairy Products, which used the word "Dairyland" to advertise its brand. By 1932, Ray was manager of the company's Hot Springs and Camden units, and by 1932, Southwest Dairy Products had gone bust.

"And how we succeeded, I suppose, was because he [Ray] had the nerve to buy the plant during the Depression with borrowed money, most of which was borrowed from my mother's side of the family," the Rogers side, says Albert. That money came from some real estate they had, Yarnell says.

"But the plant was nothing like the size it is now, although we have built on this way and that way and up on the same location," Albert Yarnell says. "But Mr. Grisham's plant was less than 100 feet from where we are now, all of his plant."

The plant's street address is 205 S. Spring St., but it starts at the corner of Spring and Pleasure Avenue and occupies a good four blocks.

As soon as he was old enough, Albert was helping out at the plant, including making deliveries on his bicycle. That pattern has been followed through the generations. "All of us whose last names are Yarnell have basically worked here since we were children. I began working here when I was 12. I'm 57 now -- a long time," Rogers Yarnell says.



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