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When the engine’s running, it’s the distinct sound — not taste — that brings customers to Julie Kramer’s on-wheels ice cream shop.

The owner and operator of Jewel's Home Made Ice Cream is eager to show off her unlikely power source: A 1926 John Deere tractor engine.

The “old-timers,” Kramer says, recognize the contraption, known as a hit-and-miss engine or a “Johnny popper.”

“They used them for grinding corn or as a washing machine,” Kramer said. “People either hear the sound and know exactly what it is or they don’t quite know what it is, so they come over to figure it out.”

The next natural reaction?

“Surprise and a little shock,” Kramer, a native of Erie, Illinois, who has lived in Clinton for 20 years, said.

Kramer started Jewel’s Handmade Ice Cream four years ago. The longtime bartender and waitress bought the trailer from a former vendor in Salem, Indiana. She’s still working on replacing that signage.

Learning how to operate the hit-and-miss engine required plenty of “trial and error,” she said.

By now, Kramer, 54, who grew up on a farm and started driving her family’s tractor at age 10, said making ice cream “the very old-fashioned way” is a weekly routine.

“In a way, it’s back to my roots,” Kramer said. "I really love it." 

Here’s how she does it: The engine powers the churns, which stir a prepared mix of cream and flavors, ice and salt. It takes about 45 minutes for the first batch to reach a milkshake-like consistency and 20 minutes for each 18-gallon batch after that. Kramer then transfers the ice cream into freezers to get fully ready.

In previous years, Kramer would primarily travel to festivals and fairs; however, this year she plans to regularly set up shop Thursday-Sunday near the riverfront in Clinton, during events such as Clinton Symphony Orchestra concerts and or the weekly outdoor concert series, called Rockin' The River.

“I don’t like winter, so I was looking for a way to be mobile,” Kramer, who set up Jewel’s Home Made Ice Cream in Florida during the winter of 2015, said. “Now, this is what I do full-time.”

Kramer also plans to sell her treats at upcoming tractor shows, the Rock Island County Fair, set for July 18-22, and Winnebago County Fair, set for July 20-23.

As far as she knows, Kramer’s business is part of a tiny group of vendors who use the hit-and-miss engine method. Others include Yesteryears Ice Cream based in Muskego, Wisconsin, Rader's Old Fashion Homemade Ice Cream in Ohio and R & R Old Fashion Ice Cream based in North Carolina.

“People tell me they can’t buy ice cream at the grocery store anymore because it doesn’t taste as good,” she said. "This is the real thing." 

She says people try her ice cream out because of “the uniqueness of how it’s made,” and come back for the quality.

Her flavors include vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, blueberry, cherry, lemon, chunky peanut butter chocolate chip and weekly add-ons, such as apple pie, southern peach, mint chocolate chip, mango or pumpkin pie.

“One of the things I love is coming up with new recipes,” she said. “It’s a good challenge.”

Her favorite part of owning Jewel’s?

“It’s a lot of talking to people and hearing their stories,” she said. “Everybody is in a good mood when they buy ice cream.”

Clinton's food truck scene

Kelley Girls Woodfire Pizza

Kelley Girls Pizza, a Clinton-based food truck, opened in April. 

When Jewel's Home Made Ice Cream opened, there weren't many other food vendors around town, Kramer said.

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Now, her business is one of four on-wheels eateries in Clinton. Others are Holly’s Hot Dogs, Kelley Girls Pizza and Mahala Sweet Treats. 

"We all help each other out and do it as a group thing," Kramer said. "It's good for foot traffic." 

When it comes to food trucks and trailers, Clinton, which has a population of 26,855, is still in the pilot stage, according to city administrator Matt Brooke.

"As we see additional vendors enter the market, the plan is to have a consortium work on an updated ordinance," Brooke said in an email, adding that the consortium would include downtown business, food vendors, citizens as well as city employees and council members. "Meanwhile, we follow the ordinance established for just normal vendors with a couple modifications." 

According to that ordinance, food trucks and trailers can set up near the riverfront or in public parking areas and must pay a $200 annual fee, which includes a $15 background check. 

One of the city's newest food vendors is Kelley Girls Pizza, owned by Scott and Valerie Kelley, along with their three daughters. They opened the food trailer, offering wood-fired pizzas in similar fashion to the Quad-City based Streets of Italy food truck, in April. 

“Our daughters have the summers off, so we were looking for something to do together,” Valerie Kelley said. “And it's been a hit; we've been very successful."

They typically set up near other food vendors to create a cluster effect.

"I think we all really complement each other," she said. "There's no competition." 

Despite the long hours of prep work, the Clinton native said she plans to keep Kelley Girls -- and popular pizza recipes such as chicken Alfredo and mac and cheese with bacon -- rolling in the future. 

"The best thing is meeting new people; everyone has been so welcoming to us," she said. "I felt like I knew most of the people that lived here, but there's a lot of people I'm meeting for the first time." 


Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).