We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford's Ice Cream Empire

We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford's Ice Cream Empire

by Andrew Gifford

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We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford's Ice Cream Empire by Andrew Gifford

For more than 70 years, Gifford's Ice Cream and Candy Company was associated with nothing but pleasure for native Washingtonians and visitors to the nation's capital. Few knew the dark truth... Behind the iconic business's happy facade lay elaborate schemes, a crushing bankruptcy, two million dollars of missing cash, and a tragic suicide. As the last Gifford heir unfolds his story with remarkable immediacy and candor, he reveals the byzantine betrayals and intrigue rooted in the company from its modest beginnings—dark influences that would ultimately destroy the legendary Gifford business and its troubled founding family.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781939650818
Publisher: Santa Fe Writer's Project
Publication date: 05/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 693,917
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Andrew Gifford is the founder and director of the Santa Fe Writers Project, an indie press dedicated to craft writing. He is the grandson of the founder of Gifford’s Ice Cream.

Read an Excerpt

We All Scream

The Fall of the Gifford's Ice Cream Empire

By Andrew Gifford


Copyright © 2017 Andrew Gifford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-939650-81-8




I always loved books.

We had a library in the family house in Kensington, Maryland, with a window that looked out at the treetops in the backyard. The shelves were so deep and strong that I could climb them and touch my head to the ceiling. Painted entirely white, the room was the most comfortable place in the house. I remember hugging the thick, snow-white shag carpet more than I remember hugging either of my parents. I lay on that carpet and worked my way through the books, even if I was too young to understand everything they were saying.

Every shelf overflowed — books sitting on top of books, packed two deep. From Robert Jordan to Conan Doyle to Marcus Aurelius. A complete collection of gold-bound first-print Dickens vied for space with Tutor from Lesbos and the collected short stories of Ray Bradbury. Julius Caesar lay atop Richard Matheson. J.G. Ballard formed a wall behind which lurked Sisterhood is Powerful and Ed Sanders' The Family.

I got swept up in Benchley's Jaws, the shark lunging up the first edition's stark black cover toward an unsuspecting swimmer. I worked my way through a dusty, seemingly ancient Sherlock Holmes omnibus. Dickens felt like a gateway to a secret world. As Mom and Dad argued, I taught myself the harder words with a 1974 Merriam-Webster Dictionary open at my elbow. It was in that library where I hid and tried to keep away from my parents. Their battles raged through the house — if I kept quiet and stayed in the library I could often avoid the worst of it.

But not always. One day in 1980, when I was six and lost in some book, I spilled a glass of fruit juice onto the carpet. Stealthily, I ran for towels and toilet paper to try to clean up my mess, but Mom noticed the commotion. As I worked at the stain, her voice boomed: "What the fuck have you done?"

I jerked to attention and found her at the door, watching me. Crab-walking backwards, I hit the reading chair that dominated a corner of the room. Mom stalked over to the stain, and then looked up at me. Twisting her rings around, she headed my way.

Several days later my father called in Howie the handyman — a semi-permanent fixture at our house when I was a young boy. Howie marched upstairs and looked at the juice stain with Mom. As further punishment, I was now told to "witness my crime." My mother brought in a stepstool from the kitchen and set it up beside the stain, where I would watch Howie replace that section of carpet.

Mom and Howie spoke among themselves, and Howie laughed, then glanced sideways at me. To so many people, my mom was always "Mrs. Gifford," but Howie addressed her like he was a member of our family. He called her Barb, and sometimes they'd hold hands or talk in very low voices in her room.

Sitting on my stool, I shifted to a more comfortable position after Mom left me alone with him. He wasted no time, getting on his knees and cutting out the juice stain. We kept rolls of replacement carpet and replacement paint in the basement. My mom told me that this was because everything in the house was old and irreplaceable. But of course that wasn't true. The stockpile contained many ordinary items. For my whole childhood at that big house on West Bexhill Drive, a basement bedroom held nothing but cans of paint, wallpaper, carpeting, furnace parts, tools, and even replacement sections of plumbing and electrical wiring. With this cache, anything could be replaced, from windows to pipe fixtures to roof slates. Everything was organized and preserved, awaiting the day when some very selective apocalypse wiped out all the home supply stores.

Howie cut away at the carpet, his shiny pate sweating. After a while, he glanced up at my unwavering stare and hissed: "You really did a number on my carpet, you little prick."

He waited for a reply. When none came, he grinned and said: "You're just like your dad. A pansy."

He told me that my father was "taken up the you-know-what" all during his youth.

"Old John locked Bob up when he wasn't using him," Howie said to me.

He got on his hands and knees to make a thrusting motion with his hips, stretching his head out, making soft grunting sounds as he added: "Maybe that's what we should do to you!"

Then he reached over and pinched my leg, his grin growing toothy and wide. I kept my seat and let him pinch. I knew that if I left my post for any reason, the punishment would be severe. Howie watched me for a moment — my stony silence and stare now fixed on him instead of the square of carpet — and then he shrugged and went back to work.

Howie's allegations were corroborated by Mom. The stories she sometimes told me, usually on nights Dad stayed late at the Silver Spring store, confused me, and often contradicted themselves. But one note was always there — that Dad had been brutally abused. By the time I was six, I had a clear and intimate idea of what rape and sexual abuse were like, thanks to my mother's natural ability to tell a story, weaving a complicated narrative while occasionally acting out key scenes.

The story — and the telling and retelling of it — trumped any need to protect my childhood innocence. Mom made sure that I understood the intricacies of my father's extreme sexual abuse, allegedly at the hands of John Gifford, my paternal grandfather. Later, however, when I was a teenager, the abuser became my paternal grandmother, Mary Frances, the gruesome anatomical details of Mom's story shifting to accommodate the change in characters. Where once she described my grandfather raping his son, now Mary Frances performed a slow seduction in the basement. Mom described the scene, and then explained the gritty details as Mary Frances pressed Dad to the ground and mounted him.

Before these tales began, I had never feared the basement. A maze of collected junk and home supplies, it was filled with enough secret entrances and hidey-holes to make it a place of adventure. A laundry chute fed down through the house, terminating in a tiny, pantry-sized closet in a lonely corner of the basement with a door that could be closed and latched. The latch no longer held anything shut, but sported an antique padlock, rusted closed. I was curious about that padlock. A mystery! What had been locked up in there? Why was such a formidable padlock needed on what amounted to a laundry basket? How would Holmes solve this one?

Inside this laundry closet was a tiny, dark space just comfortable enough for a child. It was an excellent hiding place, and I would often huddle in there while Mom and Dad fought far above me in the house, the sound of Mom's screams echoing down the chute. One day, I decided to see how far I could climb up the chute. I wedged myself into the square metal tube and was surprised to find that the inside had been painted as far as an adult arm could reach. That seemed odd, even to my child's mind. I levered myself up so that half my body was in the chute, with enough space all around me to turn and even push my elbows out like wings before they touched the walls.

In front of me, barely visible, I saw where someone had clawed at the paint, peeling it back from the metal. Another mystery. Carefully lowering myself down, I ran to find a flashlight, and then returned to inspect the claw marks. Below the marks were what looked to be letters. I traced them with my own fingers, but they weren't all legible. Six letters, one of them an 'L', and, then, below those, five letters, one of them a 'Y'.

At the time I didn't understand what these markings were. I'm still unsure. Was it a message? Had Dad been here long ago, as a child? Or someone else? That day, I didn't let myself think about them. I worried more about being blamed for them and the punishment that would follow, so I said nothing, and hoped they'd never be discovered by Mom. This is the first I've ever talked about them.

Eventually, Mom's lurid stories had their effect on me. In the same year that I discovered the scratches in the laundry chute, I became convinced that the basement was haunted and began to fear being down there alone. The steps — carpeted in pale blue and bending at a tight angle into darkness — frightened me, and I would quietly lock the deadbolt on the basement door whenever I was unobserved. Once, I did this while my dad was down there, and Mom pretended that she couldn't hear him knocking for nearly an hour, whispering that I should ignore him as well.

This was all certainly something I couldn't discuss with my father. He and I rarely spoke anyway. Every morning at six, he got up and packed his brown leather briefcase with paperwork, books, snack food, a couple quarts of whiskey, and a carton of Newports, and then he left without a word. Many of the books he packed were adventure novels — Ian Fleming, John D. MacDonald, and others. Some of the books were how-to guides from Loompanics Press, an indie catalogue that specialized in survivalist and anarchist fare, with a wide range of bizarre titles like Close Shaves: The Complete Guide to Razor Fighting, several guides to making lock-pick sets, and How to Hide Things in Public Places.

My mom devoured these books as well, and both of them put what they learned to use. They built their own lock-pick sets and practiced on doors around the house — no doubt one source of my own fascination with things unopened. I'm not sure if Dad knew, but Mom also hid money and other supplies — baggies of prescription drugs, for example — throughout the house. I can't help wondering today if the current occupants of our house are sitting on top of a portion of the Gifford's fortune, crammed beneath floorboards, in the walls, and in sealed compartments hidden throughout the basement.

Dad always came home well after my bedtime. Most weekends and holidays, he went to the store as if it were a normal workday. When he was around the house, he'd stay on the phone for hours, laughing and agreeing to whatever was being said, but rarely speaking. A hundred-foot coiled cord ran from the phone to the handset and he'd end up wrapped up in it, perched on the kitchen counter over the sink, smoking, drinking, and carrying on like a nervous, stuttering version of Sybil Fawlty: "Oh! I know ... I know ..." When he and I did speak, I sometimes asked about my grandparents. But he would narrow his eyes and stare down at me to say: "We don't talk about them."

Yet my curiosity demanded that I know. I pressured both my parents, again and again, to tell me stories. So they told me the story on the back of the menu.

"Your grandfather founded Gifford's in 1938 ... In the same year ..."


Gifford's Ice Cream & Candy Co. was founded in 1938 by John Nash Gifford. In the same year, he opened the first Gifford's on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he sold his six original ice cream flavors. In 1940, he opened a second location on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland. Today, with five locations, Gifford's stands by its family traditions.

That's what was written on the back of the menu when I was a child. The menu was a simple, laminated four-page fold-out, pink and white with black lettering. The front featured the company logo — the peach-colored silhouette of a slim brunette woman in a pilgrim outfit, offering a white cup of ice cream balanced perfectly on the palm of her delicate hand. On the cup, my grandfather John's script spelled "Gifford's."

At the pilgrim woman's eye level (unnerving to my young mind, she didn't actually have eyes), a placard hung from a sign-post also read "Gifford's" in John's script, and, below it, "Ice Cream and Candies."

When I was very young, Mom used the menus to teach me my letters. I remember snippets from those days, playing in the kitchen or sunning in the garden while Mom quizzed me on the descriptions of each dish.

"Jumbo Swiss Sundae?"

"An unforgettable treat," I recited, "that meets the high standards of even the most avid ice cream devotee. Four scoops of ice cream, Swiss syrup, chopped nuts, and a —"

"Maraschino," Mom said, anticipating my stutter.

"Cherry!" I finished.

The history on the back of the menu was all that I knew about my family. Whenever I asked about John Gifford, who had died when I was two, my mother would say: "He was a very bad man."

Grandfather had hurt my father and he would have hurt me, too, she promised, if he were still alive. When I pressed, she developed her story into the basement rape saga, which left me so fearful that I stopped asking questions.

This was what I knew of John Gifford, founder of Gifford's Ice Cream and the man who made the fortune upon which our lives sat so comfortably. I never heard a kind word about him, never an interesting anecdote, and never a true telling of his life, history, or motivations. Nor was there ever any concrete evidence for his crimes and afflictions.

It's human nature for a child to want to know about his family. As much as I feared the basement stories, I still felt compelled to wonder about my dad's parents. Dad seemed unable to even speak their names. Mom, however, seemed glad to expand her catalog of startling tales about John and Mary Frances Gifford. When I was nine, Mom told me that John had been a madman. She said that he took orders from tiny blue men about six inches high, who would run around on his desk and tell him to hurt my father and to destroy the company. (Three decades later, Allen, my maternal grandfather, would back up every one of Mom's stories, telling me his own strange tales about John's little blue men.)

"Your father saved the company!" my mother said proudly. "Otherwise the blue men would have destroyed everything our family worked so hard to build."

Mom liked to tell this story, and the saga of John and the little blue men grew with each telling. The little blue men got names, and a culture, and fully fleshed-out backgrounds. The more questions I asked — what were the blue men's motivations? Where did they come from? — the more complicated the story became. Soon, John was barely mentioned. By the time I was twelve, the story was almost always about the little blue men and their troubled, supernatural origins. It seemed to be a strange, twisted take on The Smurfs more than a description of genuine mental illness, but I couldn't be sure. With Allen backing her up, it was impossible to parse what was true and what was fabrication.

Allen told me that, as John's madness increased, he once marched naked down Georgia Avenue with a shotgun and demanded that people go to Gifford's. In recent years, I found no mention of such bizarre behavior in police records or the newspapers. When I challenged Allen with that fact, he replied: "John owned the police. He founded Silver Spring, so he controlled everything. He was like a mob boss. He could — and did — get away with murder."

Of course, John Gifford was not the founder of Silver Spring. Even as a child I knew that the town was much older than that. But I rarely felt the inclination to refute my other grandfather, since Allen was the only family member who seemed reliably on my side. Besides, any wild story about this family of strangers seemed believable to me.

In 1980, Mary Frances Gifford died of pneumonia. I was six. My parents hid her death from me, and I wouldn't learn the truth of her passing until I was forty. When I was a child, I saw her only three times, always in her hospital room. Crippled by a stroke in 1977, she couldn't speak, and, each time we visited, my mother pushed me to the edge of her bed and stood wordlessly behind me, holding me in place as Mary Frances ran her gnarled fingers through my hair, drooling and nodding, her eyes glittering. To me, this woman was worse than a stranger. She was a villain in the story of my father's abuse. No longer visiting her was a relief.

On the day of her funeral, I was just a clueless six-year-old, playing with my Legos. I watched as Mom and Dad flitted around the house, dressed in their Sunday best. Mom packed up her purse, came into my room, and told me that she had a movie ready for me downstairs and I should watch it, be quiet, and not answer the door or the phone until they got back. As she said this, she grabbed my arm and began pulling me towards the stairs until I started to follow along.

In the living room, on our Betamax, she had stuck in The War of the Worlds. Then they were gone, leaving me alone in the big house for the first time. It was also the first time I'd seen The War of the Worlds. I sat in front of the TV and let the sound of the Martian war machines overtake me at top volume — the pulsating, alien hum when they moved, the shriek of their death rays. I watched, rapt, the panicked citizens being vaporized as society and cities collapsed until, defeated by the common cold, the invasion ground to a halt and the Martians all died in mucus-coated horror.


Excerpted from We All Scream by Andrew Gifford. Copyright © 2017 Andrew Gifford. Excerpted by permission of SFWP.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prelude: At the Lake, 1979,
Part One: Family of Strangers,
Chapter One: The Land Where the Ice Cream Grows,
Chapter Two: Indian Rock,
Part Two: Splinters,
Chapter Three: Vanishing,
Chapter Four: Trigeminal Interlude,
Chapter Five: Harmony Grove,
Part Three: Heir to a Scandal,
Chapter Six: Anatomy of an Empire,
Chapter Seven: Selling Lies,
Chapter Eight: Army of Ghosts,
Chapter Nine: Ice Cream Dreams,

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