Editor's Note: This story is Part I of a two-part feature on the blaze that gutted Countryside Restaurant one year ago today. Look for Part II tomorrow.
The approach of Memorial Day and end to another school year traditionally have signaled the start of "Ice Cream Season" at Countryside Restaurant.
For decades, a landmark overlooking Emmaus and Macungie where Routes 29 and 100 meet in Upper Milford Township, Countryside -- first known as Kressley's Cree-Mee-Freez -- was the quintessential roadside ice cream stand in our very midst.
What's your favorite memory of Countryside Restaurant? Tell us in the comments.
Patrons sat on benches or in the grass of the hillside overlooking the valley below as they licked at twirled soft ice cream and watched the glow of fireflies brighten as darkness replaced sunset on a warm summer evening.
Models of cars parked in the lot changed. Fashions changed. The music that wafted over the parking lot changed. But the essence of the scene remained the same for decades.
Until May 21, 2011.
That's when an overnight fire gutted the restaurant, closing the business indefinitely.
As a result, this Memorial Day -- and apparently the entire summer -- will be different because of the blaze that hit the popular restaurant specializing in soft ice cream. Instead of extended summer hours to meet the demand of lines of customers snaking out the doors, the parking lot will be empty and the doors locked. Memories of a bustling business have been replaced with sights of a charred, gutted building, tall grass and a large "for sale" sign that offers someone new an opportunity to start over.
The once neatly-swirled treat of a business is figuratively -- for now -- a dripping, gooey mess.
And all over...$200, according to the most recent operator, William Kao. Kao said he worked with fire and police investigators and was told the cause was arson that resulted from a burglary. He said wires were cut to surveillance cameras.
Neither Upper Milford Western District Fire Chief Joseph Kernick nor state police Fire Marshal Michael A. Booke could be reached for confirmation.
Kao remembers that he was alerted of the fire at 3:24 a.m. "It was one of those things like, 'This isn't happening,'" he recalled thinking as he drove up to his burning business.
But it was all too real.
The business was opened in 1958 by Leo Kressley as Kressley's Cree-Mee-Freez. The property was sold in 1974 to Nadine Schmoyer, who provided an addition for eat-in service, and the name changed as well. The most recent owner is a Harleysville chiropractor, Jim Hilston.
Kao entered the picture about 2 1/2 years ago when he switched from hotel management to a tenant running the facility. He knew of the site's tradition and wanted to add to that.
"It's a nostalgic place," he said. "That's one of the reasons why when the opportunity came...we took a leap of faith. I loved the place. Everybody loved the place."
Kao realized that in order to meet the rent, he would have to turn Countryside into a year-round venture. So, he added to the menu and expanded the hours. That change took some time to catch on, but he said it did.
Then came the fire.