Latrobe seeks to ice claim with state Historical Marker Program as birthplace of banana split
By Joe Napsha
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, 8:53 p.m.
Latrobe is seeking historical validation from the state for its claim as the birthplace of the banana split, even if a town near Cincinnati claims otherwise.
The city recently applied to the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program for approval of a plaque to recognize David E. Strickler of Latrobe as inventing the banana split in 1904 and selling it in a downtown Latrobe drugstore, Tassell Pharmacy, said Jarod Trunzo, who submitted the application in his role as Latrobe community engagement and sustainability coordinator.
The focus of the application for a historical marker is on Strickler, who lived from 1881 to 1971, as the inventor of the banana split and designed a special dish to display his creation, Trunzo said.
In addition to giving Latrobe its rightful place as the home of the first banana split, Trunzo said, the city hopes the recognition will help boost tourism in Latrobe.
“It's another fun reason to visit downtown Latrobe,” Trunzo said.
Legend has it that Strickler, then a 23-year-old apprentice pharmacist at Tassell Pharmacy, was experimenting with different ways to make an ice cream sundae. Soda fountains, featuring ice cream and soft drinks, were a staple of pharmacies. He sliced a banana in two, added scoops of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate ice cream, three kinds of flavored toppings and whipped cream to make the new dessert.
Latrobe and St. Vincent College in Unity have celebrated Strickler's invention for a number of years. The effort to apply for the historical marker began a few months ago as part of a discussion Trunzo had with Alex Graziani, Latrobe city manager. The initiative got support from the nonprofit Latrobe Foundation, the Latrobe Historical Society and the Latrobe Community Revitalization Program, which oversees the city's Main Street Program, Trunzo said.
Latrobe's application for recognition as the town where the banana split was created was supported by Tribune-Review newspaper articles dating back to 1980, a 1984 article by the National Ice Cream Retailers Association and a 1959 letter written by Strickler, who said he made the first banana split in 1904 when he was learning the drug business in Tassell Pharmacy.
Michael Turback of Ithaca, N.Y., author of “The Banana Split Book,” which was published in 2004 to mark the 100th anniversary of the dessert created by Strickler, also wrote a letter supporting Latrobe's claim.
“In my view, there is no serious challenge to Latrobe's ice cream history. David Strickler deserves the credit for his dalliance with the tropical banana, sliced down the middle for easy eating, juxtaposed with three mini sundaes and offered to the townfolk of Latrobe, beginning in 1904, for just one thin dime,” Turback wrote in his Sept. 12 letter that was included in the application to the state.
St. Vincent College and Valley Dairy founder Joseph E. Greubel, affectionately known as “Ice Cream Joe,” weighed in with letters of support for a historical marker.
An independent panel of experts with the Historical Marker Program will review the application from Latrobe, as well as other applications, and recommend to the 15 members of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission on whether the application meets the criteria for being approved for a historical marker, said Karen Galle, coordinator of the state program.
With the commission receiving about 50 applications annually for approval of historical markers, Galle said, the burden of proof for making the case for a marker lies with the applicant.
The commission may have a special vote in March on the approval of the markers or may wait until its May meeting, Galle said.
Among the criteria for selection are whether the person, place, event or innovation had “a significant impact on its times and has statewide and/or national, rather than local or regional, historical significance,” according to a commission resolution adopted in September.
Strickler meets several of the criteria, including his connection to Pennsylvania and the fact that he has been dead for more than 10 years.
If approved, the historical marker in Latrobe would be one of more than 2,000 blue cast aluminum markers with gold lettering that recognize native Americans and settlers, government and politics, athletes, entertainers, artists, struggles for freedom and equality, factories and businesses, and a multitude of other topics, according to the program's website.
While Latrobe has laid claim to the birthplace of the banana split, it is disputed by Wilmington, Ohio, a town of about 12,250 people 45 miles northeast of Cincinnati.
Wilmington has sought to preserve its claim as the birthplace of the banana split by holding its Banana Split Festival for the past 18 years. Even though the website promoting the festival states that Wilmington restaurateur E.R. “Brady” Hazard began promoting banana splits in his eatery in 1907, thus three years after Strickler sold his first one, the town has not given up.
“Their (Latrobe's) claim boasts of its creation three years prior to Wilmington's, but it's a claim Wilmington refuses to accept,” according to the Banana Split Festival website. “It's a fun rivalry,” Trunzo said.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
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