Blue Bell Creameries, a limited partnership with headquarters in the rural town of Brenham, Texas, and more than twenty branch offices, is a manufacturer of ice cream and frozen dessert products that distributes to southwestern states including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and New Mexico. The company began in 1907 as a Washington County dairy-farmers' cooperative called the Brenham Creamery Company, when the founders converted a nearby abandoned cotton gin into a creamery and made butter from their excess supplies of cream. Ice cream production began in 1911, and the firm took its name from a native Texas wildflower in 1930. E. F. Kruse, who took over as general manager in 1919, is credited with reversing the creamery's declining fortunes after two early managers failed to expand the business. Chairman and chief executive officer Ed Kruse and President Howard Kruse, both sons of E. F. Kruse, succeeded their father in heading the firm. Initially, Blue Bell produced ice cream at the rate of two gallons a day in wooden tubs filled with ice. Refrigerated trucks for distribution to retail food outlets replaced horse-drawn delivery wagons in 1936, and in 1958 the company discontinued making butter in order to specialize in ice cream production. Its most popular ice cream flavor, Homemade Vanilla, was introduced in 1969 and, with a new continuous freezer, production increased to 15,000 gallons an hour by 1993.
In 1977 the company adopted its familiar logo depicting a young girl leading a cow. By 1992 Blue Bell was the nation's number-two ice cream, behind Breyer's. Blue Bell dominated the regional ice cream market with sales of $170 million–a 57 percent market share in Texas and a 32 percent share in Oklahoma and Louisiana. With its 300,000-square-foot plant, the firm is Brenham's largest private employer. At tours of its Brenham production facility and new corporate headquarters and visitor center, completed in 1988, Bluebell hosted roughly 117,000 people each year.
Over the years, Blue Bell has diversified its products with the development of frozen dietary desserts, nonfat frozen yogurt, and frozen snacks, including Blue Bell Ice Cream Sandwiches, Snickers, Nestle's Crunch, and Eskimo Pie. Responding to demands for lower calorie confections, the company began using NutraSweet, and holds the distinction of being the first major United States ice cream manufacturer to make a "lite" product in 1986. Bluebell continues to obtain its raw materials, including milk and cream, from large cooperatives of dairy farmers, primarily in Texas.
Company expansion began with the construction of temporary production facilities in Houston in 1960. A branch was opened in Austin in 1965, at Beaumont in 1973, and at Dallas in 1978. Between 1980 and 1986 manufacturing plants were opened in Alvin, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Longview, and Waco, and in 1989 Blue Bell opened out-of-state distribution branches in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Though it controls all shipping and handling of its products, Blue Bell, unlike Baskin-Robbins and other ice cream chains, does not maintain its own sales outlets, but sells its products through retail grocery chains. Since it is located in the heart of dairy country, the company has never needed to own its sources of raw materials, but continues to depend on farmers in the surrounding area. In 1990 it began distributing products in Mexico through Manhattan Paletas, and in 1992 it opened a production facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
Blue Bell grew from 650 employees in 1955 to 1,300 workers in 1987. In the latter year the company established Blue Bell Advertising Associates, an in-house advertising agency, to produce seasonal radio and television spots to air between February and October. With well-placed media advertising, Blue Bell effectively reinforced its image as the "little creamery in Brenham" that makes "the best ice cream in the country." In 1990 the original Brenham plant, which incorporated building elements from the American Cotton Gin Company and included a one-story main building in the Art Moderne style, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its role as an agricultural processing facility. See also DAIRY INDUSTRY and DAIRY PRODUCTS.