Tom Gilles, younger brother of Milwaukee’s early frozen custard pioneer Paul Gilles, has died in Fond du Lac, where he had founded and operated his own Gilles’ Frozen Custard stand at 819 S. Main St., since 1949.
Gilles was 93. He died Saturday.
Growing up in Wauwatosa, Gilles learned the custard business from his elder brother Paul, who opened Gilles’ on Bluemound Road in 1938 after having himself learned the trade from Milwaukee’s first custard stand operator Joe Clark.
Tom Gilles (PHOTO: Gilles' Frozen Custard Facebook)
Clark opened Clark’s Frozen Custard on Capitol Drive in 1935 but later focused his attention on his Dutchland Dairy chain of stores. Paul Gilles worked at a second Clark’s Frozen Custard location on Bluemound Road before opening his own place up the road.
After 10 years at the Milwaukee Gilles’, Tom moved to Fond du Lac, where he opened the Gilles’ there when was just 21.
He reportedly developed his own custard recipe with the help of the Galloways, whose dairy continues to provide custard mix to many Wisconsin custard stands, and even today it runs through classic Carvel Custard King machines.
The stand, which retains its classic look – including a long awning under which carhops serve customers sitting in their vehicles – is operated by Gilles’ son Jim.
Gilles’ passing was noted in a Facebook post by the restaurant on Monday.
It read, "It is with heavy hearts that we are letting you know of the passing of Tom Gilles, founder of Gilles Frozen Custard. Tom died Saturday, April 11 at St. Francis Home. Seventy one years ago Tom followed his dream and started "Gillys." He never would have guessed it would grow to become such an icon in Fond du Lac, and a place that has fond memories for so many of you. Tom was a humble man and it was always so important to him to thank his patrons, who ultimately, were responsible for his success! We are saddened that we are not able to gather at this time to celebrate his life. Hopefully we will be able to do so in the future. In the meantime, the family will have a private service to lay him to rest. Thanks to all of you who have been a part of Tom’s life in the past 71 years! He always said, ‘I’ve been so blessed!’"
Deepest condolences to Gilles' family and friends. And thanks for introducing me to my soulmate of a sundae, the dusty road, at one of my favorite Wisconsin drive-ins.
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 an episode of TV's "Party of Five," 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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.