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September 2005
, Ohio

   Driving on Interstate 71 between Columbus and Cincinnati, we’ll encounter signs for Wilmington. This city had its beginnings in the early 1800s. Many of Wilmington’s early residents were Quakers who moved to Ohio from the southern states  because of their opposition to slavery. The city’s name appears to have come from Wilmington, North Carolina.

    But we can’t even begin to talk about Wilmington until we acknowledge the great banana split controversy. Up to now, you might not have known that there even was a great banana split controversy, but now you do and here’s how it goes.

    Let’s return to the year 1907, a cold, blustery, wintry day in Wilmington, Ohio. Ernest Hazard, the proprietor of a restaurant appropriately called Hazard’s, was having a slow day. It was just too cold for people to leave their homes or offices and go out to eat. So he decided to liven things up by proposing a contest for his employees. “How about,” he said. “How about creating a new dish, a concoction so unique that it will lure customers into the restaurant? How about something so novel that it will compel the students at Wilmington College to put down their books and make their way to Hazard’s?

    Ernest Hazard gave his employees free run of the restaurant food supplies. Anything they could find was fair game. So they went to work and so did Ernest Hazard. He decided to enter his own contest and see what he could come up with. So what if he was the judge? He owned the store; he could make the rules.

    Well, he took a banana, peeled it, cut it in two, placed it on a desert plate. He scooped three mounds of ice cream and lined them along the split banana. Then he went wild, like a modern artist confronting a canvas. He squirted that ice cream with chocolate sauce, dribbled strawberry jam all over it, added chunks of pineapple, and sprinkled nuts over everything. He covered it all with whipped cream and, as a finishing touch, gently positioned a maraschino cherry—or two or three—on top of the heap of whipped cream. 

    Ernest liked his creation so much that he named himself winner of the contest. But what to call it? He was stumped so called on his cousin, Clifton Hazard, who had a flair with words. After feasting on a free sample of this new dish, Clifton suggested, “How about calling it a banana split?”

    “Nah,” said Ernest. Nobody would go out into the cold for something called a banana split.

    End of story. Wilmington now celebrates its heritage with an annual banana split festival, where thousands are served with the dish that Ernest Hazard created on a cold, wintry day.

    So where’s the controversy here? Just this. There is at least one other town in the USA that claims to be place where the banana split was invented and that also has a banana split festival to give credence to its claims. We’re talking Latrobe, Pennsylvania, here.

    The Latrobe story takes us back to 1904, and an optometrist named Dr. David Strickler who owned a pharmacy. Like Ernest Hazard, Dr. Strickler was going after the college market, aiming to come up with something that would appeal to students at nearby St. Vincent College. He is said to have been inspired by watching soda jerks creating sundaes and decided to go one better. Hence, the banana split.

    It was an immediate hit with students, who brought tales of banana splits when they returned to their homes throughout the east. David Strickler is also credited with designing the specially shaped dish that true soda fountains have on hand in which to serve this concoction.

    So who’s right? Which community can claim authentic rights to the origin of the banana split? Well, we’re not about to take a position on this one. Too dangerous. We just think it’s fair to warn you that when you’re traveling through this part of the state, you’re deep into Wilmington banana split territory, buddy.

For more about Wilmington and its surrounding communities, see the CD for I-71 South: Columbus to Cincinnati or I-71 North: Cincinnati to Columbus.

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