Our 2022 Road Trip #29: Room for Jell-O

Two old "Jell-O Fun Barbie" sets, mint in box with dolls, Jell-O packets, and pink molds.

Barbies love the taste of Jell-O! One of many pop culture icons to embrace Jell-O corporate synergy throughout the years.

We had several hours of driving to do on Day Seven, but it’s no fun to spend an entire day only driving. After we’d finished having our kind of fun in Utica, our next stop down the road was a four-mile digression off the New York State Thruway with a very special museum that we hoped would entertain us for at least a few minutes. In that sense our timing estimate was pretty accurate. But hey, they say there’s always room…

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Since 1999 Anne and I have taken one road trip each year to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. After years of contenting ourselves with everyday life in Indianapolis and any surrounding areas that also had comics and toy shops, we chucked some of our self-imposed limitations and resolved as a team to leave the comforts of home for annual chances to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between. We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

For 2022 we wanted the opposite of Yellowstone. Last year’s vacation was an unforgettable experience, but those nine days and 3500 miles were daunting and grueling. Vermont was closer, smaller, greener, cozier, and slightly cooler. Thus we set aside eight days to venture through the four states that separate us from the Green Mountain State, dawdle there for a bit, and backtrack home…

2½ hours west of Utica was the town of LeRoy. Once upon a time in 1897 a carpenter named Pearle Wait was trying to use gelatin to make a cough remedy and/or laxative tea. Instead he accidentally made dessert: Jell-O was born. He later sold the trademark to a medicine maker, who outsourced its production and subsequently sold it all to the manufacturer, who patiently kept on truckin’ and hit the big time after the turn of the century. After a few more ownership changes over the decades, today Jell-O is part of the Kraft Heinz intergalactic food empire along with dozens of other grocery classics like A-1 Sauce, Shake ‘n Bake, Maxwell House Coffee, and Kool-Aid.

But LeRoy still remembers, in particular the LeRoy Historical Society. In 1997 they set up a temporary Jell-O exhibit behind their main building inside an 1860 stone schoolhouse that they’d also acquired. A year later they made the exhibit permanent, and the Jell-O Museum was born.

Actually finding it proved tricky. The online directions took us to the front curb of the Historical Society and didn’t clarify where to go for Jell-O. We parked out front along the highway, wandered down a brick path past the Society, felt like we might be walking through private backyards, but found our destination. Then we found its dedicated parking area, but I refused to move the car.

Anne looking up at the two-story Jell-O Museum. Second floor has a balcony with a cow statue on it.

Behold the Jell-O Museum! It should’ve been open according to their hours of operation posted online, but the staircase had a chain fastened in front of it.

A metal plaque outside on one-foot legs lists all the Jell-O employees who served in WWII.

Exterior accessories include the Jell-O Employee Veterans Memorial, naming everyone on their payroll who served in World War II.

One of those "tiny libraries" that were all the rage. It has one book in it. There's a baseball field behind it.

There’s also a Little League field and a tiny library that looks like it’s been ravaged by book-banning zealots.

A cow statue on a balcony, painted mostly blue. Decorations include an ancient Jell-O ad with a tiny girl, and symbols of various small-town businesses nearby.

One of us may have sneaked past the chain to photograph their LeRoy cow statue. Don’t look at me.

A door under the balcony labeled "Winter Entrance".

The only other point of entry we found was their “Winter Entrance” under the balcony.

I was torn. The staircase chain implied that way was forbidden, but the existence of a “Winter Entrance” implied that it might be impassable in June. While I fussed over the legalities, Anne tried the Winter Entrance’s doorknob and tiptoed inside. We found no people yet, just a pair of bathrooms that hit the spot, plus an entire museum exhibit about the subject of olde-tyme transportation, nothing to do with Jell-O.

An old horse-drawn carriage parked in a basement, minus horses. It has oil lamps on either side of the driver's seat.

Vehicles parked inside included an 1894 C Spring Victoria horse carriage…

One of those old impossible bikes with a 5-foot wheel in front and a 1-foot wheel in back.

..and an 1880 Columbia bicycle, of the sort that don’t even exist in cartoons today, let alone in practice.

A vitrine filled with labeled old medicine bottles.

Apropos of LeRoy historicity, a collection of medicines developed in this very town, none of them as famous as Jell-O.

Creaky stairs guided us upward to the gift shop and admission register. We paid our dues to a pair of employees, one of whom gave us a brief oral history of the product, one of many to take advantage of the trendy “-O” suffix that was all the rage in that era. We were then free to roam around the one (1) large room that held the entirety of their colorful collection of Jell-O merchandise and paraphernalia.

A big red Jell-O logo hangs over various knickknacks: a painted ad, stacked glass cubes in Hell-O colors, and so on.

Welcome to Jell-O country!

A replica green Jell-O cake-sized dessert on a cake stand. Probably not made fresh that day.

Sample glimpse of Jell-O, but most likely either a facsimile or shellacked.

A stuffed dead giraffe standing next to another big red Jell-O logo, with that lime Jell-O cake on an adjacent table.

Next to said sample is a taxidermied circus giraffe formerly owned by a pizza shop. Long story.

A sign with the classic slogan "There's Always Room for Jell-O!" hangs on a wall under some random big metal spoons.

Do the kids these days even know the old slogan? Or the jingles?

Four paintings of Jell-O mounds, vertically hung on a wall.

Jell-O paintings of the sort they used to print in Grandma’s magazines.

Two concept drawings of Kewpie Doll-esque cherubs enjoying Jell-O.

1915 cutesy Jell-O promo art by Rose O’Neill, creator of the famous Kewpie dolls.

A Norman Rockwell painting of a girl serving Jell-O to her dolly in a rocking chair.

Back in 1922 even Norman Rockwell had some skin in the Jell-O selling game.

An entire wall covered in metal Jell-O molds in varying shapes and sizes.

Metal molds turned Jell-O into all sorts of fun shapes to eat, though every serving went down exactly the same.

Some plastic Jell-O molds in ugly toy colors, hung in a smaller display.

Sometime around the Space Age while Western civilization was declining, some old white dude whispered “Plastics!” and next thing you know, everyone was using plastic Jell-O molds instead of metal.

Dozens of metal eating utensils hanging from the ceiling and pointing directly at you looking up.

Utensils hung from the ceiling above us in front of the wall of metal molds, as if to subliminally threaten violence against anyone who prefers those molds to the plastic ones.

A Jell-O brain in a weirdly tall, cylindrical glass case.

This Jell-O brain may or may not be plotting to take over the world as we speak.

Lots of tiny stuffed animals all clad in T-shirts reading "I [Heart] Jell-O".

Stuffed animals love the taste of Jell-O!

Four plastic Jell-O spoons, each with a photo of a different hockey player's face in the spoon.

Hockey players love the taste of Jell-O, like onetime SNL host Wayne Gretzky!

Boxes of modern cartoon character Jell-O molds.

Phineas, Ferb, and the Madagascar zoo crew love the taste of Jell-O!

Two old puppets: one red and happy and goofy, the other a Snidely Whiplash ripoff.

Puppets of 1960s Jell-O mascot Mr. Wiggle (possibly a ghost who was never busted) and his arch-nemesis Sweet-Toothed Sam, the love child of Snidely Whiplash and the Wicked Witch of the West.

A box of Jell-O fruit-flavored coffee that looks like it was sold only by elderly apothecaries.

Jell-O fruit-flavored coffee was arguably ahead of its time. If only Starbucks had been around to push it.

An old audiocassette bearing a version of Snow White's tale.

In the mid-’80s, kids had an offer to mail in six Jell-O UPCs and get a free Snow White public-domain retelling on cassette, with Rumpelstiltskin as the B-side.

Anne sticking her face through a cardboard standee of a 1920s Jell-O girl.

Anne fancies herself a Jell-O girl who might’ve played marbles with Shirley Temple.

Anne making a face while holding up a T-shirt with the old Jell-O slogan "Watch It Wiggle! See It Jiggle!"

Anne does not fancy buying this T-shirt from their gift shop. One wonders if these come in Barbie sizes.

…and there was more, more, more. Curiously, they had no Jell-O cafe serving fresh Jell-O for eating in temptation struck. Alternatively, a display of flip-boards let kids learn the recipes to Jell-O dishes with names like Blue Goo Volcano, Neapolitan Jell-O, and Savory Vegetable Salad Mold to make at home using up all of Mom’s clean cookware. One other omission of note: we didn’t find a single reference anywhere to my favorite product of theirs from my childhood, Jell-O Pudding Pops, which I always preferred to ordinary Jell-O. Nor did we spot any souvenirs of Jell-O Pudding Pops spokespeople who later became felons.

Our whirlwind didn’t take long — ten minutes, per my handwritten notes. We took our leave and went to find lunch nearby. Anne may have had her heart set on a pizza place called Capish, but we walked up to their door only to find that as of June 2022, that very month, they’d changed their hours of operations and were no longer open for lunch. Dejected at the locked doors and cheap paper sign taped to them, we tried searching online for another option. I cut our deliberations short perhaps a bit more abruptly than I should’ve and redirected us toward another place down the block called Smokin’ Eagle BBQ & Brew.

A red brick barbecue restaurant.

Not that there was anything wrong with the restaurant, mind you. This was Day Seven, we were fatigued, and our discussion went awkwardly.

A metal tray containing a brisket sandwich, sweet potato fries, cole slaw, potato salad, AND warm apples.

While Anne settled for a mushroom-‘n’-Swiss burger with kettle chips, I went overboard with a brisket sandwich dinner and too many sides. My fault, not theirs..

Our New York State tourism experience for the year ended there. We rejoined the I-90 Thruway and continued westward toward the border. The rest of our day was indeed driving and driving and more driving…unfortunately even more than we’d anticipated. In the short cross-section through Pennsylvania’s northwest corner that separates New York and Ohio, we got caught in a 4-mile backup caused by a semi accident outside Erie. After a couple of miles we jumped off the interstate for a few minutes…


…so I could check Google Maps for a faster alternative map. The sometimes all-knowing app (which had failed to get us the latest Capish updates) took the accident into consideration and still couldn’t find us a faster route into Ohio. After a few minutes of fussing, denial, and purchase of fresh beverages, we nevertheless returned to the interstate and tried to be patient with the situation at hand. Eventually this too passed and it was smoother sailing to our next stop in our next state, for better or worse.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

A "Welcome to Pennsylvania" sign along the interstate on a sunny day.

UPDATED: 5/28/2023: Forgot to include the mandatory shot of a “Welcome to Pennsylvania” sign. Those responsible for the omission have been sacked.

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