For 50 years and more, the simple pleasures of an ice-cream have drawn crowds to Carl's

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The Independent US

The line of people stretched along the wall, turned 90 degrees and turned yet again, heading towards the car park where more people were arriving.

"Tonight's nothing," Elbert "Smitty" Smith said. "There are nights I have seen the line go right around the building and around again."

There is one thing and one thing alone that draws people to this spot in the town of Fredericksburg, and it has lured people for more than 50 years: the ice cream sold by Carl's roadside ice-cream stand. On busy days, more than 1,300 people will drop by.

"It's simply the best ice cream around," said 75-year-old Mr Smith, who works as an evening security guard at Carl's, keeping the line in order and staying until it closes. "My favourite is the strawberry."

Carl's ice-cream stand, with its original green, white and red neon signs, has been here since 3 April 1947, when it was opened by Carl Sponseller and his late wife, Margaret. It has become an institution, enticing people from across northern Virginia and further afield, especially on the humid nights of mid-summer when nothing soothes the soul better than one of Carl's ice creams. Today, just as in 1947, there is nowhere to sit down.

"We made our own flavours, the vanilla, chocolate and strawberry," Mr Sponseller, now aged 86, said. "We kept the quality up; it was all fresh every day. We always opened 11am to 11pm, seven days a week from February to November. We had to get up early every day."

Mr Sponseller sold the store several years to a brother who has passed it to his three children. They keep things much as they always were: there are still just the three flavours of ice cream and a cone still costs a paltry $1.15 (75p). Danny Sponseller, Mr Sponseller's nephew, said: "I would say we still make the ice cream the way it has always been."

Devotees of Carl's make a big deal of the ice cream: it contains a lot of buttermilk and eggs and is close to being a frozen custard. But because the amount of eggs falls just below that required by Virginia state laws to call itself such, Carl's always advertised the product as soft-serve ice cream.

"Part of the attraction is the old machinery," Bill Winkler, 41, said, eating a large cone of vanilla. "It just makes the ice cream richer." The personnel executive has been going to Carl's for more than 20 years. "I like to try and not have the same thing every time," he said with a laugh.

But no matter how good the ice cream is - and it is good, if not spectacular - the real attraction appears to be Carl's itself. In a town of 19,000, Carl's has become something with which the people have grown up.

It was where they were taken by the parents, where they took their own children and where their children take themselves to indulge in its simple, uncluttered pleasures.

"I have three children," said Caroline Bland, 50, who was in the winding queue with her friend, Anita Davis. "It was a place to bring them. People used to look forward to it opening."

And on this occasion, another generation who had grown up with Carl's were marking with an ice cream their last night before going to university. "It's the atmosphere," said 18-year-old Stephen Baobadillo, who was heading for Charleston, South Carolina. "You can always bank on knowing someone. I can go out here and meet people."