Moorhead man behind DQ’s Dilly Bar dies at age 91
MOORHEAD, Minn. - Robert “Bob” Litherland dispensed countless Dilly Bar ice cream snacks from behind the counter of Moorhead’s Dairy Queen. But the man who helped popularize the Dilly Bar, and was present for its invention, didn’t especially like the ice cream treat he helped market to the masses.
Litherland, who died Monday at age 91, established the Moorhead Dairy Queen in 1949 with his wife, Phyllis. It was among the early Dairy Queens, the first of which opened in Joliet, Ill., in 1940.
He became known informally to some in Moorhead as “Dairy Queen Bob.”
The Moorhead Dairy Queen’s opening every March 1 signified the start of spring for generations of ice cream lovers, and its closing at the end of October meant winter wasn’t far away.
The Litherlands opened the store after seeing long lines outside the Dairy Queen near Island Park in Fargo, which no longer exists.
“They looked at that and thought, well, there might be room for another one,” said Teri Thorsen of Moorhead, one of the Litherlands’ daughters.
Although the Moorhead Dairy Queen has become a downtown fixture, drawing from nearby college campuses, the Litherlands confronted skeptics in the early days, when fast food had not yet become so woven into the culture.
“When he started that business, a lot of people told him it was just a fad and it would never last,” Thorsen said. “I think it was tough in the early years.”
An early challenge came in 1950, months after the store opened, when Bob was called back to serve in the Army during the Korean War. He had served as a paratrooper in Japan and the Philippines during World War II.
During his absence, Phyllis, who had a 1-year-old baby and was pregnant with another, reopened the fledgling business with four employees.
Bob worked at the store from 9 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, eight months a year. Although he wasn’t a big fan of soft-serve ice cream, every night he brought home a chocolate shake for Phyllis.
“It was an all-consuming business,” Thorsen said. Her parents set their prices low – the Dilly Bar originally sold for a dime and now sells for $1.25, tax included.
“They were after the long-term customers, not just the one driving through town,” Thorsen said.
“He used to say I’m the richest man in town,” she added. “It’s not in dollars, it’s because I serve smiles.”
One of the joys of the business was getting to know his customers. Those long hours of standing were worthwhile because of contact with customers.
“Though my feet are nearly broken and it’s tough to stand on them, I just love to be there, to see the people,” he said in a 1999 interview.
The Dilly Bar originated in 1955, according to lore passed down by the Litherlands. A couple of brothers who supplied ice cream mix stopped by. Somebody poured a swirl of ice cream on paper, stuck a stick in it and dipped it into chocolate.
“Somebody said that’s really a dilly,” and the name stuck, Phyllis said in a 2010 oral history interview for Story Corps on public radio.
The bars quickly became popular, and the medical tongue depressor sticks originally used became scarce in the region, Litherland recalled in 1999.
“We didn’t have any trouble selling them at all – they just took off,” he said.
The original Dilly Bar was chocolate, but in time the Litherlands also served cherry and butterscotch.
Bob’s mantra was using fresh ingredients, including raspberries from lakes country and chocolate chip cookies from Hornbacher’s. That tradition continued when new owners, Troy and Diane DeLeon, took over the Moorhead Dairy Queen in 1995.
In fact, the DeLeons had to debut before they bought the store, working beside the Litherlands to ensure that they knew what was involved in every facet of the operation.
Bob used to stop by every now and then, a habit that ended only in the past few years.
“He would still come in and help make Dilly Bars,” Diane Deleon said, recalling the early years she and her husband, Tony, ran the DQ after buying it from the Litherlands.
Although most Dairy Queens today buy their Dilly Bars from a supplier to company specifications, the DeLeons continue the tradition of making them fresh in the store.
They use the same recipes for homemade chili and barbecues. “It’s all the same, how they trained us to make it,” she said.
Bob was their coach and cheerleader, Diane DeLeon said.
“He was a great mentor,” she said. “He was an amazing man, and he had such a positive effect on so many people.”
The DeLeons keep an inventory of 1,200 frozen Dilly Bars on hand to make sure they don’t run out in the event of an unexpected bulk order.
In the course of a year, they sell more than 80,000 Dilly Bars, a prominent item for Dairy Queens around the country. The Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau proclaims the metro as the home of the Dilly Bar.
“We do tens of thousands of them,” Tony DeLeon said of the signature snacks. “It’s the same concept.”