50 Years of Chilling: Aunt Stelle's Sno Cones in Oak Cliff

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A white Mercedes CLS 500 slowly turns right off Clarendon and parks along the curb on the wrong side of the street. The tail end of the car is sticking out just a bit. The driver and his date, a young couple, get in line behind a family of six, all who just piled out of a black Suburban. Cars are parked haphazardly along the street, a continuous stream squeezing in and out of tight spots.

"We have everyone in our line. Entire families, young kids, people that have been coming here for generations, cops," said the owner of Aunt Stelle's Sno Cone stand, Lee Albert. "I guess snow cones just bring people together."

Albert's dad bought this tiny building at the corner of Clarendon and Marlborough in Oak Cliff five decades ago -- the exact day was May 12, 1962. When that day passed this year, Aunt Stelle's quietly celebrated 50 years of shaving ice and marauding it with sweet bright syrup.

Back then, when this neighborhood snow cone stand was in its infancy, Albert was 7 years old and technically didn't work that first year because she couldn't see over the counter. But, she gained a few inches that following year and they put her to work when she was 8.

"My dad just wanted us to have something to do during the summer," explained Albert. "Years later I would joke with him, 'Did you realize the monster you created back then?'"

Since the family lived just two blocks away, it was an easy foot commute. The snow cones cost a nickel that first year (although in '63 they got serious about things and raised the price to a dime). A family friend gave them the ice machine, but her dad replaced the blade mechanism, which he went on and got a patent for, and to this day they still use that same machine. They sharpen the blade about once a week and only once had to replace the motor. That monster they created is like a siren call that brings people back to the neighborhood where they grew up, maybe to show their kids the house where they were raised and grab a snow cone that's made the exact same way it was when they were 12 years old. Albert has seen three and four generations of families through her small wooden-framed window to southern Dallas.

Years ago when her family still lived near the snow cone shack, hungry customers would even knock on their door looking for their shaved ice fix. Albert admires her customers' tenacity and faith, even though sometimes it was a little much.

"Prior to opening on some days, the doors will be completely shuttered yet there will be a line of people to the sidewalk. They just always have faith that we're in there," said Albert a little amazed.

At Aunt Stelle's they harvest their own ice and even make their own syrups from scratch. The menu board that hangs to the right of the window is as old as the stand itself, just updated on occasion. Albert says that strawberry is the long-time favorite, after that it's the house-made Pink Lady that tastes like homemade vanilla.

"Aunt Stelle" is Albert's mom, who was one of nine children and, as a result, had a small army of nephew and nieces. "Aunt Stelle" just stuck and it also just had a nice ring to it for a neighborhood snow cone stand.

There is one small, yet really important rule at Aunt Stelle's. (Generally there aren't many rules when it comes to snow cones, but this one is important) The last person in line at 9 p.m. is the absolute last person served. It doesn't matter how urgently a customer needs a large half coconut half banana; if they're not in line at 9 o'clock sharp, then come back tomorrow.

"We always get people that say, 'I was in line, just was standing over there,'" Albert says laughing. She's heard every late snow cone story there is. But by 9 p.m. after standing on her feet for seven hours, she's ready to shut it down. For most of the past 50 years, Aunt Stelle's was open seven days a week. But, the past few years they've cut back. This summer, they're open Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Which has been good for Albert and her family. They've been able to discover local summer-time events that she literally never had an opportunity to visit before.

The stand is open every year from the last Saturday in April through Labor Day. Every year she hears rumors from other people that they're closing for good, which gives Albert a good laugh. "Yes, we close every year. But we also open every year."

And about that last day of the season -- after making thousands of sno cones -- how does it feel to shut it down after a season, "We're just thankful we made it through another year," said Albert.

But, the bigger question is, how many snow cones do the owners get to eat in one season? "I don't eat snow cones anymore," Albert said. "But I'll tell you what, my dad worked here until he was 75 years old and he ate at least one snow cone every day he was here."

Albert says they hope to be able to continue to work at the stand for another 10 years. After that, she's not sure what will happen. Since the day they opened in 1962, when JFK was president and Wilt Chamberlain was playing in the NBA, it has been a family run business, aside from neighbor and long-time family friend Mark Harris who often helps with different parts of the business. But, regardless they're staunchly against selling to anyone outside the family.

When Albert retires, Aunt Stelle's most likely will too. Probably the way it should be. It'll be a sad day and many cars will slowly drive by the stand that they grew up with, wondering what happened and, most important, where they're going to get their next snow cone. Unfortunately, there's just not another like it.

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