Column: He’s the man who created the twist cone

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 15, 2001

Whenever I see one of those vanilla and chocolate soft serve ice cream twist cones, I’m reminded of the 1988 interview and visit I had with the inventor of this tasty treat.

Friday, June 15, 2001

Whenever I see one of those vanilla and chocolate soft serve ice cream twist cones, I’m reminded of the 1988 interview and visit I had with the inventor of this tasty treat. He was Harold William &uot;Bill&uot; Atkins, who had a strong connection with Freeborn County

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It’s with regret that I have to use the past tense in the previous paragraph. Bill Atkins, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known, died on Monday, June 4, at his home in Edina.

Bill Atkins came to Albert Lea from Nebraska at the age of 10 when his father became the manager of Maple Island Farms Co. The family later lived in both Hollandale and Maple Island. His first flight came at the age of 12 at the Freeborn County Fair when he went up with a barnstormer who came through the area giving airplane rides.

Atkins was a football and basketball player at Albert Lea High School for three years and an all conference end. He also played baseball with the Hollandale town team.

After graduating from Albert Lea High School in 1938, Atkins went to the University of Minnesota to study aeronautical engineering. He played football with Bernie Bierman’s famous Golden Gophers, becoming a letterman in 1939 as a second string end to Johnny Marriucci.

However, his strong interest in aviation created a conflict with a desire to become a professional football player. The advice he said was received from Bierman was, &uot;Bill, football is a game. You could be flying for a long time. Go for it.&uot;

In 1940, Atkins took flight training with the Civilian Pilot Training program at the Albert Lea Airport. The following year he logged 500 to 600 hours of flight time and planned to become an airline pilot. This goal was delayed by World War II and military service. In fact, he entered the armed forces on Dec. 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

During the war he served with the U.S. Army Air Corps in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Texas and became a flight instructor with both B-17 and B-29 bombers. In July 1942 he married Grace Kleinpaste of Hollandale.

After the war, the former Army captain returned to Hollandale and became a pilot with Northwest Orient Airlines on Dec. 10, 1945. However, until he could build up seniority time, flying with the airline was a part-time job for Atkins until about 1956. For three years he and his father operated a small factory in Hollandale which eventually built a mobile home a day to help solve the postwar housing shortage.

His father retired to Pensacola, Fla., about 1949 and opened an ice cream business. Bill worked for Northwest in the summers and spent several winters operating the store in Florida. During this time he came up with the concept of the ripple or twist flavor valve, a four-way selector to add flavors to a vanilla base, and a mixing valve for adding milk to make milkshakes. Atkins held the basic patents for these innovations.

However, there’s more to the saga of Bill Atkins than just the contribution of the twist or two-flavor ice cream cone to civilization. He was very versatile with his other interests such as astronomy, which tied in with his aviation career, and as a world class photographer.

Bill’s interest in photography actually started when he was a student at Albert Lea High School and contributed photos to the Tiger yearbooks.

He told me in 1997 his hobbies resulted in 23 week-long trips on the famous &uot;Love Boat,&uot; plus several other cruise ships as an instructor in photography and astronomy over the previous two decades.

From 1974 to 1977 his hobby resulted in a rating as one of the top 10 photographers in the world based on exhibition results and a listing by the Photographic Society of America.

In the next column we’ll emphasize the device invented by Bill Atkins which has proven to be a really significant factor for aviation safety around the world.

Feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays in the Tribune.