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At former HallMark Drive-In, a different name, but the ice cream's the same

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Old Lyme - A name out of the town's past has re-emerged as the new operator of HallMark Drive-In, the century-old food establishment that has been a favorite Shore Road stop for generations of summer beach-goers and year-round residents.

A.C. Petersen Farms in West Hartford has taken over HallMark and renamed the clam shack with a heavy emphasis on ice cream the A.C. Petersen Drive-in. Local residents with a long memory remember the A.C. Petersen brand because a Bloomfield farm by the same name used to run milk-delivery trucks down to the shoreline nearly a half century ago.

New owner Catherine Denton of West Hartford, who remembers stopping by HallMark as a young girl visiting the shore, said the A.C. Petersen dairy farm is no longer in existence, but she bought the family's West Hartford restaurant in 2002 after spending time as chief financial officer of the company. When she heard HallMark was for sale, Denton felt it was a good match and a nice way to extend the A.C. Petersen brand.

"There seems to be a lot of good synergy between the two businesses," said Denton.

West Hartford is where A.C. Petersen had a restaurant and produced its ice cream. It became the brand's only location after about a dozen other restaurants with the same name in the Hartford area were closed down by the Petersen family.

A.C. Petersen, like HallMark, dates back about a century - its anniversary comes up in 2014 - and both businesses have a loyal following, Denton said.

Richie Uterstaedt of Old Saybrook, a loyal HallMark customer who stopped in late last week during a hot spell, said he was familiar with A.C. Petersen name and the restaurant. He said the new place in Old Lyme, freshly painted a bright yellow, was looking good and declared the A.C. Petersen-brand ice cream as delicious as ever.

"I just come for the ice cream," he said.

Marylou Balinskas of Old Lyme said HallMark is part of town lore and has earned mentions in some of the books authored by Point O' Woods Beach resident Luanne Rice.

"It's just a great place," she said. "I'm so glad they're here."

Though the name has been changed, Denton decided to honor the HallMark tradition by keeping one of the store's original signs.

"The businesses are so similar," she said. "We recognize it's near and dear to people's hearts."

HallMark, which celebrated its centennial in 2009, originated as a shop selling hand-dipped chocolates on the corner of Halls Road. Founder Nat Hall later began offering nine flavors of homemade ice cream: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, maple walnut, ginger, caramel, pistachio and raspberry.

Lee and Fran Ewers purchased the establishment in 1961 and continued offering homemade ice cream from the original recipes, said former owner Donna Ewers, their daughter-in-law.

In 1972, the Ewerses bought the current location on Shore Road. They operated both businesses for five years, but closed the Halls Road location when the state indicated a new bridge might be constructed nearby.

In 1982, Donna and her husband, Stephen Ewers, bought the shop. Donna Ewers, who became sole owner in 1986, continued the tradition of making homemade ice cream on the premises: grinding ginger, pulling strawberries and removing skin off the peaches.

Families would flock each summer to the community establishment unique to Old Lyme. Young adults, including her two sons, would learn a strong work ethic and have fun while working at HallMark, said Ewers.

"When you went to HallMarks you just had a sense of good service," said Ewers. "It's just been a part of Old Lyme for so long."

Peggie and Garry Legein bought HallMark in 2001 from Ewers, operating it for 12 seasons. They included original recipes in their products - including the ever-popular Black Hall Mud, named after the river flowing nearby (the flavor may yet make a comeback, because A.C. Petersen retains the ability to make a few ice creams on premises).

Peggie Legein said the family enjoyed running the summertime establishment, but it became time to pass it on, since their grown children had other endeavors. She was happy to find a new owner who would retain the essence of the site's tradition.

"She's got the history," Legein said of Denton. "She knows all about ice cream."

A.C. Petersen, which opened May 20, offers a variety of food such as hot dogs, hamburgers and lobster rolls. Ice cream sundaes are served with homemade whipped cream.

The location, employing 15 to 25 people, is intended to be very casual, inviting beachgoers to stop by in their bathing suits.

"It's a true drive-in," Denton said.

About a half dozen picnic tables with umbrellas overlook the mouth of the Black Hall River and accompanying marshland.

James Denton, one of the drive-in's managers and brother-in-law of Catherine, said the property changed hands in April, and it took about a month to complete necessary renovations. The opening was slow because of unseasonably cold weather, but a hot Memorial Day brought out the first major crowds.

"A lot of people who come here for the summer live in the Hartford area, so they already know us," he said. "People are really liking it."


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