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Moorhead Dairy Queen co-founder who helped create Dilly Bar dies at 90

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Phyllis Litherland, right, co-founded the Moorhead Dairy Queen with her husband, Bob, in 1949. She died Sunday, Aug. 12, at her daughter's home in Chicago at the age of 90. Moorhead Dairy Queen / Special to The Forum2 / 3
Troy and Diane DeLeon purchased the downtown Moorhead Dairy Queen from its original owners, the late Bob and Phyllis Litherland, in 1995. The DeLeons keep a photo of the Litherlands above their desk in the back of the store. Forum file photo3 / 3

MOORHEAD — The woman who co-founded the iconic Moorhead Dairy Queen and had a hand in creating the world-famous Dilly Bar has died.

Phyllis Litherland died Sunday, Aug. 12, in her daughter's home in Chicago at the age of 90.

Phyllis and Bob Litherland in 1949 established the downtown Moorhead Dairy Queen, among the franchise's earliest restaurants in the nation, at the corner of Eighth Street South and Main Avenue. The couple is also often credited for the creation of the Dilly Bar.

According to Troy and Diane DeLeon, the owners of the eatery since 1995, Bob and Phyllis married in 1948 after Bob's military service in World War II as a paratrooper in Japan and the Philippines. They invested in a downtown Moorhead property during his service and looked for a business to start.

The Litherlands opened the Dairy Queen on Aug. 1, 1949. To make ends meet, they lived in the backroom of the store. Before they could open for the 1950 season, the Army called Bob back for service in the Korean War. Phyllis, pregnant with their first daughter, managed the business by herself that year while also taking care of their 1-year old.

"If it weren't for Phyllis, the store would not have survived," Diane DeLeon said.

Making a landmark

Bob tended to get more of the attention working at the front of the store, making orders and talking to people, while Phyllis stayed in the back doing payroll. It was a partnership that worked well, according to the DeLeons.

"They were such an amazing team!" Diane DeLeon said in a post to the restaurant's Facebook page. "We are so grateful that they took a leap of faith in 1949 when they opened the Moorhead Dairy Queen and again in 1995 when they entrusted us with their store. They truly lead by example and taught us to find joy in each day. We miss them dearly and they will forever hold a special place in our hearts."

Although the Moorhead Dairy Queen has become a downtown fixture, drawing patrons from nearby college campuses and across much of the community, the Litherlands confronted skeptics in the early days when fast food had not yet been embraced by the broader culture.

"When they started that business, a lot of people told them it was just a fad and it would never last," the couple's daughter, Teri Thorsen, told The Forum in 2013. "I think it was tough in the early years."

The Dilly Bar came about in 1955, according to lore passed down by the Litherlands. A couple of brothers who supplied ice cream mix stopped by, and somebody poured a swirl of ice cream on paper, stuck a stick in it and dipped it into chocolate.

"Somebody said that's really a dilly," and the name stuck, Phyllis said in a 2010 oral history interview for StoryCorps.

The original Dilly Bar was chocolate, but the Litherlands also served cherry and butterscotch versions. Although most Dairy Queens today buy their Dilly Bars from a supplier that produces the popular dessert to company specifications, the DeLeons continue the tradition of making them fresh in the store just like their predecessors, and even use the Litherlands' old recipes for homemade chili and barbecues.

"It's all the same, how they trained us to make it," Diane DeLeon said.

The Litherlands insisted upon using fresh local ingredients, including raspberries from Minnesota's lakes country and chocolate chip cookies from Hornbacher's grocery stores. That tradition continued when the DeLeons took over.

In fact, the DeLeons said they worked closely beside the Litherlands in the early days to ensure they knew what was involved in every facet of the operation.

Phyllis told The Forum in 2009 that she was glad the DeLeons continued traditions she and her husband started decades before, adding it was "really neat" that the business became a community landmark.

Phyllis remained a fan of the store long after she and Bob retired from it, continuing to get a chocolate milkshake on opening day each season.

"I was there for every opening day for 46 years, so I guess I just wanted to keep being here for the first day," she said.

The Moorhead Dairy Queen donated half of its sales on Thursday, Aug. 16, to the Veterans Honor Flight of ND/MN in honor of the Litherlands.

Funeral arrangements are pending with Korsmo Funeral Home in Moorhead, according to a death notice submitted to The Forum.

Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is a former TV anchor/radio host currently working as a features writer and video host for Forum Communications.

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