On a beautiful, warm September afternoon in Nyack, sixth-grader Alan Englander left Hilltop School on Highland Avenue to walk home. He heard the fire alarm sound and spent the rest of the afternoon watching in horror as clouds of black smoke billowed from his favorite ice cream store on Route 59. The black smoke forced the closing of nearby NYS Thruway, Route 59, and Route 9W. People in White Plains and on the Palisades Parkway could see the dark plumes. A great sadness descended on Alan Englander, the villages, and the region as the late afternoon fire demolished one of Nyack’s most beloved institutions, McDermott’s Milk Bar.
The McDermott Brothers
The McDermott brothers of Haverstraw purchased the Felter & Amitrani milk distributorship at 38 Jackson Street in Nyack in 1924. At the same time, they ran a milk distributorship in Haverstraw. Frank and Emmet ran operations in Haverstraw and Peter and Thomas ran the Nyack business. They sold pasteurized grade-A Milk and cream from Puritas Farms in Newburgh. Later, they purchased milk produced in Greene County that was bottled in a plant in Catskill, NY. They also made butter. Refrigerated train cars brought milk and butter to Nyack and Haverstraw.
The brothers learned a vital lesson early, don’t leave your keys in the car. Just before they assumed ownership of the business, someone stole Frank’s Ford touring car with the keys left in it that he had parked on S. Broadway. They called police and the car was recovered in Piermont within 20 minutes. Police arrested a 15- and a 16-year-old and put them in the local jail in Nyack’s Old Village Hall. The McDermott’s were lucky, they had no insurance. Frank gave up on the Ford. He bought a red Studebaker later in the year.
McDermott Brothers Ice Cream Company
In 1945, the McDermott Brothers formed an ice cream company. Their dairy was one of the largest independent milk wholesaler and retailer in the region. The same year they introduced the T-square glass bottle. The next year they acquired the old Nyack Ice Pond between Route 59 and High Avenue from the Lydecker family. Soon after, they drained the pond and resold the property. At the same time they acquired the Nyack Ice Pond, they also obtained 4 acres along the south side of Route 59 across from the pond that was once a Lincoln and Mercury car dealership. They only paid back taxes to get the property. This property became the site of their new venture, McDermott’s Milk Bar.
Milk Bars in America
An Englishman started the first milk bar in Bangalore India in 1930. Milk bars became popular in the US in the 1940s specializing in milk shakes at a traditional soda fountain supplemented with separate tables and chairs serving hamburgers, French fries, and other sandwiches. They were a gathering place for young people often with pinball machines and jukeboxes. Milk bars disappeared with the advent of malls and fast-food restaurants.
McDermott’s Milk Bar & Sandwich Shop
McDermott’s Milk Bar was an instant success when it opened in 1950 on Route 59. Soon after it opened, the New York Thruway built an overpass in front of the business. The Thruway built a cutout road from Route 59 to what had been Upper Depew Avenue. It ran alongside the business. The milk bar was so successful that it drove Nyack’s other milk bar, Miller’s Milk Bar, in West Nyack to close in 1952. Ice cream made on site proved to be a winning formula. Banana splits, French vanilla ice cream, and ice cream sandwiches were among the many special treats for children.
From 1960 to 1967, Nan and Ed Traverson managed the McDermott’s restaurant after they left the popular Traverson’s Market on South Broadway. In 1967, one year before the fire, they started another iconic Nyack restaurant, Traverson’s Wooden Indian just west of McDermott’s on Route 59.
A Dramatic Fire
A rapidly expanding fire began at 4:40p on September 30, 1968, just five weeks before America elected Richard Nixon as President. Only three waitresses were on duty in the restaurant and only one booth was occupied by five customers when smoke started entering the eating area. All but two of the employees working in the plant had gone home. None suffered injuries.
The fire stated in one of the storage areas on the second floor above the main floor. Large amounts of ice cream containers, both paper and plastic, were stored there along with other paper. Minutes after the alarm sounded, flames were shooting out of the flat tar roof. Five firemen were taken to Nyack Hospital for treatment and released.
The fire was out of control before the fire companies from Central Nyack, Valley Cottage, and West Nyack arrived. The rear wall collapsed and crashed inward. Then a utility shed in the back of the building also crashed into the blaze. It took two hours to extinguish the flames. Only a charred shell remained. At 10p one lane of traffic opened on Route 59. Dangerous ammonia leaks from the refrigeration units continued overnight.
The End of the Milk Bar Era
Peter and Frank McDermott did not give an estimate of the loss, but it was thought to be about $500,000. The two remaining McDermott brothers had no interest in rebuilding. Frank had already retired to Florida. The building was demolished in August 1969.
The fire at McDermott’s Milk Bar was the first of a rain of fire that engulfed Nyack’s ice cream shops. In 1969, Hearne’s Confectionary at the corner of Midland and Main Streets burned to the ground. Only 18 months later, the Eagle Confectionery at 110 Main Street burned to the ground. However it was the demise of McDermott’s Milk Bar that spelled the end of the milk bar era, now replaced by drive-through fast food and giant parking lots in malls. I think we all agree, it is time for a revival.
Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. Hays has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.