At the clip-clop of horse’s hooves, children grabbed their nickels and ran. The Ice Cream Man — also known as Frank McCombs — was coming. McCombs was one of the last ice-cream peddlers in Ontario. For 25 years, his horse-drawn ice cream wagon was a familiar sight on the streets of Paris. He worked from 10 am to 11:30 pm on summer days, serving as many as 1,000 cones a day.
Most Parisians overlooked McCombs’ crutches, which was just the way he liked it. “I’m a cripple, but I’m also a realist,” he told a reporter from the Brantford Expositor at the time. “There’s a lot of people sitting around in wheelchairs that shouldn’t be. It’s a matter of adjusting”.
He became a paraplegic at the age of 18. Refusing to be defined by his disability, he opened a small tobacco shop. Within 15 years, it had grown into a large variety store, but he had a bigger dream. He bought an old bread wagon, repainted it, attached a horse and a bell then filled it with tubs of ice cream and soft drinks, kept cold by large blocks of ice. And off he went.
He quickly developed a large, loyal clientele. Over the years he wore out three horses and three wagons. He liked it when grown-ups he had served as children came up and asked if he remembered them. “Mostly I did,” he recounted.
Frank worked until 1973. He died two years later at St. Joseph’s in Brantford. The family donated the ice cream wagon to the Paris Optimist Club.
“We used it on several occasions and it was a huge hit wherever we went,” longtime Optimist Marilyn McCulloch recalled. It was was hooked up to a tractor and featured in parades until it became unsafe to pull it. It was filled with coolers and lots of ice and taken to Canada Day celebrations at the Paris Fairgrounds. “It was a good fundraiser as well as being well received by the community,” McCulloch said.
Between appearances, the ice cream wagon was stored in a fenced-in area between the two Optimist buildings on Elm Street and covered with tarps in the winter months. Before donating to the Paris Museum, the Optimists sent it to Burtch Correctional Centre in Brantford (now demolished) for restoration.
For the past 15 years, the ice cream wagon has belonged to the Paris Museum & Historical Society. Initially it was stored in a county warehouse. Then former mayor Ron Eddy offered to keep it in his barn. Last July, the Eddy family asked PMHS to find a new home for it.
To store it safely, PMHS bought a large shipping container. The County of Brant offered the museum space at one of their storage facilities to keep the container. But the ice cream wagon made one memorable stop on the way to its new home. Mark Eddy and his son delivered it to the Paris Fairgrounds for this year’s Fall Fair. It was set up in the Curling Club Building, where a pair of volunteers swept it out and wiped it down.
Families lined up to see it. Parents and grandparents shared their stories of the ice cream wagon, clip-clopping down the streets of Paris with Frank McCombs scooping out tasty treats. It will make future appearances.
Look for the red and white ice cream wagon at next year’s Fall Fair, Springtime in Paris and the town’s 175th birthday celebration in 2025.