Everyone in Milwaukee has a favorite frozen custard stand.
Whether it’s Leon’s or Kopp’s or Gilles’ or whichever, it’s always a subjective choice, typically based at least as much on neighborhood affiliation, family tradition and that sort of thing as it is on flavor or experience.
It’s a subject perfect for debate.
What’s not up for debate is the fact that Gilles’ Frozen Custard, 7515 W. Bluemound Rd., which celebrates its 85th anniversary this year, is not only the oldest frozen custard stand in Milwaukee, it’s also the oldest in Wisconsin.
I don’t mean it’s the first – that data is lost to history (at least for now) – nor was it the most catalytic – that title surely goes to Joe Clark – but it’s among the earliest and it is most definitely the longest-running purveyor of that beloved Wisconsin treat: frozen custard.
The business is now run by a third generation of the Linscott family, which bought the stand from Paul Gilles in 1977.
“One of the things I learned, and I remember this one guy that was pretty successful, he said, When you're busy doing something and always trying to improve, you don't really stop and take time to reflect,” says Tom Linscott, who is now retired after decades running the stand that’s now operated by his son and, since 2013, co-owner, Willy Linscott.
“You're busy with the next project. You don't look back much.”
But that said, although it’s no longer owned by a member of the Gilles family is it still owned by a family with a long-term association with the business. Tom’s father Robert began working for Paul Gilles in 1947.
That means the Linscott family has had a 76-year relationship with the 85-year-old custard stand.
Paul Gilles was born May 23, 1916, the son of Christian C. Gilles and Cecila Walloch.
The Gilles lived on 39th and Meinecke, just a couple blocks from the family grocery store on the southwest corner of 37th Garfield, though soon moved over to a place on Clybourn Street before settling by 1920 on North 61st Street in Wauwatosa with the family that in addition to 4-year-old Paul, included 8-year-old Margaret.
At that time, Christian, like his wife the child of German immigrants, was working for an agricultural supply company.
By 1930, the family was living on Aetna Court, near 68th Street – in a house they may have built themselves in 1926 – and it’s around this time that young Paul began to exhibit an entrepreneurial spirit, starting a snow-shoveling business with his pal Norman Fischer.
It’s likely also around this time that Gilles began to really excel at sports. Over the years, despite being a successful business, Gilles would receive far more newspaper ink for his golf and bowling exploits than he ever would for his custard stand.
In, 1932, the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote, “Paul Gilles, 15-year-old sophomore linksman, was largely responsible for Wauwatosa’s fine showing by touring the 18 holes in 79 strokes,” as Tosa High (now Tosa East) “dethroned West Allis High as Suburban Conference golf champion” at Grant Park.
A few years later, Joe Clark (brother of Clark Gas founder Emory Clark) had opened his Clark’s Frozen Custard stands (you can read more about this in “Milwaukee Frozen Custard,” a book I wrote along with Kathleen McCann), including one on 61st and Bluemound, where a young Paul Gilles liked to hang out.
The story goes that Gilles spent so much time there, that Clark offered him all the cones he could eat if he helped chop ice for the stand.
Before long, the entrepreneurial Gilles, perhaps with the help of his parents, bought a piece of land about 14 blocks west of Clark’s and proceeded to build his own custard business, quite literally from the ground up.
The construction of the stand was quick. Excavation work was underway on March 11 and the stand was entirely completed and passed inspected by May 13.
Step inside the stand now and you’ll see a photo, prominently displayed, of Gilles standing at the site as the building rises behind him.
Interestingly, the building permit for the stand was issued to Milwaukee Investment Co. on 35th and Vliet. Around this time, Christian Gilles was working as a real estate appraiser, and I wonder if there was a connection here. Alas, I couldn’t find any information on the company that might clarify this.
When it first opened, the stand had a small gabled hot dog stand attached to the west end. The Dog House began a tradition of selling franks that continues to this day.
As I always like to point out, the Milwaukee frozen custard scene is something of a family tree with many of the stands connected in some way.
After Clark begat Gilles, Gilles helped begat Leon’s when Paul Gilles hired Leon Schneider as his night manager. After leaving town for a couple years, Schneider would return to open his own stand in 1942 and go on to help many others get started in the business, too, including Kitt’s and Kopp’s.
Another of Gilles’ first employees was Paul’s younger brother, Tom, who was 10 years old when the stand opened. Later, Tom would move to Fond du Lac and open another Gilles’ drive-in up there. That business continues today.
When Paul Gilles entered World War II in 1942, his mother, then 77, stepped in to run the custard stand.
In 1947, a young Bob Linscott arrived. Around the same time the stand underwent its first addition and at the end of the 1948 season carhops were retired, replaced the following spring by walk-up windows.
In 1948, Paul was still living at home on Aetna Court, when his father died. He’d continue to live there even after marrying Faythe "Faye" Schilling in 1952.
Schilling had previously lived with her family, in a house quite literally next to the Miller Brewery, where her father was a brewery foreman. Once married, Faythe began working in the family business, too.
In 1955, the basement was expanded beneath the parking lot and modifications were made above ground, too.
While Paul continued to make news on the greens and the hardwood of local bowling centers, the stand continued to attract generations of Milwaukee and Tosa teens.
In winter, the parking lot was home to the annual Christmas tree lot operated by the Fruit Ranch, which had been just across Bluemound Road.
During the 1960s, Gilles began to explore packaging custard for sale in grocery stores. In 1972, however, he sold the rights to do this to an outside company, and even today, the Gilles’ custard you can buy in the store is completely unrelated to the custard stand.
Sadly, in 1969, Faythe Gilles died of cancer at just 38 years old. Later, Paul would remarry and his family would expand to include stepchildren, too.
It wasin 1975 that Tom Linscott and his brother Patrick joined their father in working at Gilles’, and Tom recalls Paul as a boss.
“Paul was a busy guy,” Tom says. “I worked for Paul when he was me 10 years ago. He was working probably 40-, 50-hour work weeks, golfing and bowling quite a bit. And a lot of other people were running it. My dad was working on buying it. Paul was still coming in four or five days a week. He was still hands on, and would work the floor a bit.”
Even then, Tom made an impression on Gilles as a go-getter, which led the boss to nickname the teenaged Linscott “Wild Man.”
Linscott’s job consisted of cleaning up outside, emptying garbage cans, unloading deliveries, etc. He liked to carry a stopwatch.
“They would make the deliveries and the (boxed would) be stacked up outside the back door and they'd count all the cases and I'd go, ‘All right, I think I can get them done in 17 minutes’,” Tom recalls, adding that he’d always try to shave a little time off each task.
“I'm taking three, four cases down the steps at a time, and he’d say, ‘"Hey, Wild Man. One at a time." I'm like, ‘Paul, I can get this done’."
But soon, Gilles decided it was time to retire from custard and focus on golf, splitting his time between Tosa and Naples, Florida.
Back In 1961, he had been the first golfer to notch four Milwaukee Journal’s state medal golf tournament wins. In 1983, six years after retiring, Gilles came in second in the Wisconsin State Senior Golf Tournament and won the title at his golf club in Naples, Florida.
“You look out at Westmoor (Country Club) and you look at his name up there (as course champ) for so many years. He'd take the club tournaments out there ... it was frequent.
“A lot of people that knew Paul come in here that I hear over the counter, that's almost simultaneous with his custard thing. They say, ‘Oh, and the golf’."
Willy adds, “He had that reputation. A customer drew an artistic rendition of Paul standing here. It was a cartoon, over-exaggerated features, and Paul had a golf club and a cone in it.”
After Bob Linscott bought the place in 1977, he undertook another big remodel, which is how the stand appeared until it got another makeover about five years ago, which also added a drive-up window.
Tom and his brother Pat bought Gilles’ from their father in 1992, though, tragically, Pat passed away less than a decade later, at age 42. Bob Linscott died in 2007.
So, how do you navigate the choppy waters of staying relevant and up to date without changing too much of a beloved institution?
It ain’t easy, says Willy.
“I would say you maintain the tradition and the quality, but always continuously improving and adapting what you can,” he says. “You can do that without changing or going backward. I think we've maintained the tradition, the quality. I always bring up grandpa's quote where, ‘Quality, service, price,’ if you don't have the first two, the third doesn't matter.”
And when it comes to the food – the classics – that doesn’t change.
“The base vanilla recipe, the classic sundaes, the specific burger blend,” WIlly says, “that stuff that we just aren't going to mess with. It's tried and true and we can build upon it. It's more then, how do we deliver it? You can add efficiencies, conveniences for customers and still have the same product.”
With that I get something I’ve long wanted: a tour behind the scenes.
Willy takes me behind the counter and shows me the custard machines, the cooler full of pints and quarts of packaged custard, the prep areas and most interestingly, the sundae-making station. That’s right next to the hot dog prep area, which Willy points out, is still located where it was during the earliest Dog House days.
We peek into the coolers where the custard mix is stored and down in that expanded basement, the floor of which Willy remembers painting as a teenager.
And that’s the beauty of Gilles. Even if it’s not owned by the original family, there is a straight Linscott line, unbroken, that runs through nearly the entire history of this place. It’s pretty remarkable.
“You know what percentage of businesses that make it into a third family generation is,” asks a tanned and happy-looking Tom Linscott, who now spends much of his time roaming the country in his hard-earned RV.
“It's like 3 percent.”
Grandpa Bob started working here as a 16-year-old, dad Tom followed as a teen and Willy wasn’t far behind. Now, one of Willy’s teenage kids works at the stand and his younger ones come in once in a while to help out, too, even if just in a token sort of way, to introduce them to the family business.
“You know intuitively when there's that family connection,” says Willy, “the heart, the passion, it is a different level. It's a deeper level.
“I want to maintain that reputation out of respect for everything these guys (his dad, his grandfather and Paul Gilles) did and before and for the years to come.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.