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Latrobe to get state marker for banana split invention

| Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 1:21 p.m.

It's official.

The state has recognized Latrobe as the birthplace of the banana split.

This week, the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission approved Latrobe's application for a historical marker designating the city as the place where in 1904, David E. Strickler sliced a banana lengthwise and added three scoops of ice cream and toppings.

Thorough documentation, as well as the uniqueness of the request and its location, convinced the Historical Marker Program panel that Latrobe met the criteria for a blue and gold marker, coordinator Karen Galle said.

“There was a fair amount of discussion on this one — mainly of the conflicting claims,” she said. “Latrobe had the best evidence that it was the first date.”

Those conflicting claims have been leveled by the residents of an Ohio town where the tasty creation is also revered.

But Randy Riley, mayor of Wilmington, Ohio, home of a Banana Split Festival for 18 years, extended the cultural olive branch to Latrobe. Or should we say a cherry stem?

“Oh, those Pennsylvania people, what do they know?” Riley joked Tuesday. “These are the types of rivalries that make people smile and make you be glad to be alive.”

As the story goes, Strickler, a 23-year-old apprentice pharmacist, created the banana split at Latrobe's Tassell Pharmacy, and its popularity quickly spread among out-of-town students from nearby St. Vincent College.

For its part, Wilmington claims that restaurateur E.R. “Brady” Hazard created the banana split in 1907, three years after Strickler.

The early origins of other ice cream treats, like the sugar cone, are often refuted as some innovations are better documented than others, said Lynda Utterback, executive director of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association.

“His (Strickler's) documentation seems to be better than anybody else's documentation,” she said. “He cut the banana down the center and thereby created a split.”

Latrobe City Manager Alex Graziani said the designation helps to enhance the heritage of the city that was the home of Arnold Palmer and the first professional football game.

“We think we're a great, quintessential small town. To me, the banana split is as American as apple pie,” he said.

The application was supported by knowledgeable locals, the Latrobe Area Historical Society, Latrobe Foundation and Latrobe Community Revitalization Program, as well as Tribune-Review articles dating to 1980, a 1984 article by the national ice cream group and a 1959 letter written by Strickler, saying he created it in the drugstore.

“Ice Cream Joe” Gruebel, chairman of the board of the 11 Valley Dairy restaurants, remembers talking with Strickler in the early 1960s.

“He never viewed it as a big deal,” Gruebel said. “He talked more about playing the trombone in the marching band; I don't think he realized.”

Gruebel, whose family has dealt in ice cream since his great-grandfather delivered it by horse and buggy, helped celebrate the dessert's 100th anniversary in 2004.

“I figured it was long overdue for Latrobe to be cited as the birthplace of the banana split and to give Dr. Strickler his credit for that,” he said.

Latrobe officials are working with the commission to plan the location and unveiling ceremony for the marker. Graziani said the aluminum sign may be placed in the greenspace created after the Latrobe Foundation bought and razed the building at the former site of Tassel Pharmacy.

Riley said he would extend an invitation to the Wilmington Banana Split Festival on June 7-8 to Graziani and other Latrobe officials as a show of camaraderie.

He likewise hopes to get an invite for the marker's presentation.

“I might make a weekend of it and look at this sham of a historical marker,” he joked. “I just think this is great fun.”

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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