Ice cream sales, boat repair boom on Lake Wisconsin

Barry Adams
Associated Press
While waiting for the arrival of the Merrimac Ferry, visitors to the Merrimac Ferry Landing Concessions in Merrimac, Wis. receive treats from the business Thursday, July 16, 2020.

MERRIMAC, Wis. (AP) – Adam Gallus was prepared for the worst when in April he forged ahead with a more than $20,000 remodeling project on his ice cream stand, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

The shop, which hugs the roadway just feet from the Merrimac Ferry landing, now has a larger service window, new counter top, higher ceilings, a fresh coat of paint, new flooring and a $4,200 energy-efficient freezer packed with 3-gallon buckets of fresh ice cream.

Gallus anticipated a difficult season at his Merrimac Ferry Landing Concessions, but figured he'd be able to weather the expected downturn and survive for another year.

His prediction was way off. And his right arm is feeling it, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Gallus, 37, who has operated the family-owned shop for the past 23 years, has never had a better season. Sales are up by 60% overall, and weekday sales are nearly double that of a year ago. Gallus' right scooping arm is getting an unprecedented workout as customers eager to get out of the house are flocking to his business for a dish or cone of chocolate chip cookie dough, Blue Moon, raspberry truffle or one of 24 other flavors from Schoep's and Chocolate Shoppe ice cream companies.

"Maybe this is one of the things that represents some normalcy for them," Gallus, who works alone except on Sundays, said of his customers. "I didn't think I'd be setting records for the better. I thought I'd be setting sales records for the worse. So I'm very surprised and very grateful just to be open this year under the circumstances that we're all dealing with."

The state's tourism industry is expected to lose billions of dollars this year as festivals, fairs, concerts and other summer staples have been wiped off the calendar. Wisconsin Dells is open, but attendance is down, although an estimated 100,000 people may have descended on the area over the July 4 weekend, increasing the likelihood of a rise in coronavirus cases, health officials said. Devil's Lake State Park has also been jammed with visitors, which has also brought customers to Gallus' stand, located 7 miles from park's south entrance.

But it's the Merrimac Ferry that has created this business opportunity for Gallus and a competing ice cream shop, the Merrimac Scoop, located across Lake Wisconsin via aqua Highway 113.

The Scoop, located on the south shore of Lake Wisconsin in the town of Lodi, sat empty for years until it was purchased in 2013 by Casey and Zach Davenport and Andrew Stendahl. The ownership group made headlines last summer in Madison when they bought a building occupied by the Chocolate Shoppe on Atwood Avenue on the city's East Side. The Chocolate Shoppe was forced to move down the street, and its former space filled with what is now called the Atwood Scoop.

The Gallus operation on the north bank has a long history that dates to the late 1940s, when Bud and Dolly Gallus purchased a tiny diner, a home and four cottages to rent to tourists. In the 1960s, Bud, who worked full-time as a truck driver, began repairing outboard motors and boats out of his garage before expanding the operation into a standalone facility next door. Tom Gallus, 69, Adam's father, began working for his parents, went to service school in Fond du Lac in 1966 at the age of 15 to learn how to repair engines, and now owns what is called Ferry Landing Marine.

Cabins are no longer part of the business plan, but one was moved years ago for use by the Galluses as a hunting cabin in rural Sauk County. Another remains at the marina and is used for storage.

As the Merrimac Ferry transports vehicles across the Wisconsin River, boaters enjoy ice cream purchased from Merrimac Ferry Landing Concessions in Merrimac, Wis., Thursday, July 16, 2020. The ferry has been a staple in Merrimac since 1844.

Up to his ears

On a recent Thursday, Tom Gallus was swamped with work and had more than 30 jobs in the queue. He's been busy replacing water pumps and broken props, rebuilding engines and fixing bilge pumps and carburetors. He was also dreaming of his winter break on Marco Island, where he uses a Jet Ski to glide among the mangroves.

"Right away in March, when we got back from Florida, it was just all (gung-ho) right away. It's been just endless," Tom Gallus said of the repair work this season. "Usually, at this time of the year, there's a lull. I think people have more time on their hands. It's been busier than all get-out."

Gallus' shop is filled with remnants of broken props, motors in repair, boats in waiting and scores of tools. A nearby slough bears the family name. The shop also holds photos of the Colsac ferries used over the years and a shot of the railroad bridge before Lake Wisconsin was formed in 1914 by the construction of the dam on the Wisconsin River at Prairie du Sac. But his immediate thoughts were on trying to find parts for his repair jobs.

"The whole industry is busy," Gallus said. "New boats, repairs, everything. The market has been just fantastic."

Roots in 1844

The Merrimac Ferry began operating as a private toll ferry in 1844 before being taken over by Sauk and Columbia counties in 1924. The state of Wisconsin purchased the operation in 1933 and now uses a cable to guide the ferry back and forth across the lake. The ferry is one of six operating in Wisconsin but the only one that is free to both passengers and vehicles.

In 2019, the ferry, which typically operates from April into November, made 40,811 trips and carried 225,762 vehicles. This season began April 20 and was limited because of COVID-19 to 13 hours a day and did not operate on Sundays. It went to a 24-7 operation June 19. As of July 5, the Colsac III had made 8,991 trips and carried 84,666 vehicles, but "ridership appears to be trending toward normal levels," said Steven Theisen, a state Department of Transportation spokesman.

There have been efforts over the years to build a bridge over this portion of Lake Wisconsin, but they ultimately have been defeated over a lack of funding and from public pushback by those who favor the ferry and the tourists it draws.

Adam Gallus is thankful the bridge plans have never panned out.

Following a day trip to nearby Devils Lake State Park, visitors to Merrimac Ferry Landing Concessions enjoy summer treats outside the business in Merrimac, Wis. Thursday, July 16, 2020. From left, siblings Lucas, Gwyneth and Adelyn Anderson with their mother, Ashley, of Lodi, Wis. At right are Meghan Jarvis and her children Charlie and Jordy, of Madison.

Nostalgic setting

It's not uncommon for him to hand scoop 200 to 300 cones or dishes of ice cream per day, and he's had days where he's topped 500. The shop also sells popcorn, candy, slushes and ice cream bars and treats.

"I have a lot of good, loyal customers," Gallus said. "They take care of me and I like to think I take care of them, too."

On that Thursday, Bob and Bernie Hartwig drove from their home on Madison's East Side. Bob ordered up a dish of butter pecan, and Bernie a dish of Caramel Combustion. The weather was spectacular after a rainy Wednesday.

"People just need to get out their house and take a ride," Bernie Hartwig said. "I can only do so many picture puzzles."

Jerome and Meaghan Waller, of Palatine, Illinois, brought their two sons, ages 17 and 19, to the shop along with two of their friends. The Wallers have been coming for ice cream since before their boys were born, as Meaghan's parents have a place on Lake Wisconsin. The Wallers and their crew came Thursday via boat.

"This whole thing is just nostalgic," said Meaghan Waller, who works as a school counselor. "It's a comfort food. They've got a good spot here."

The shop is at a natural pit stop and offers temptation to those waiting for the ferry, which holds 15 cars and takes about 15 minutes to make a round trip.

Gallus opened his shop on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend and won't shut it down until late October. He works seven days a week, spends his winters snowmobiling and can wrangle at times business from 70 percent of the cars waiting to drive onto the ferry.

It's all added to the aches in his right arm, but he's not complaining as scores of businesses are struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's either you're busy or you're struggling," Gallus said. "There's no in-between. I've been blessed."