Two women pour their hearts along with fresh ingredients into their ice cream

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“This is where the magic happens,” said Donna Merrill, gesturing to the Emery Thompson machine in which she pours local fresh fruits for Duckpond’s signature ice creams.

GUILDERLAND — When Donna Merrill was a kid growing up in Sharps Corners, she’d ride her bike to the old general store at the junction of routes 20 and 158.

She and her friends would meet there and eat deli sandwiches on the picnic table outside before hopping on their bikes and heading down Route 158 to Dutchers for ice cream. She still fondly recalls the long lines there, the red leather seats, and the smell of confections.

As the years passed and the store closed, Merrill, who has lived her whole life in Sharps Corner, was sad to see the old building deteriorate.

Sharps Corners, named for Gilbert Sharp, a Revolutionary War veteran, who had a farm there, boomed briefly in the 1920s and ’30s after Route 20 was paved and the advent of the automobile led to tourist cabins and eateries along the route.

When Merrill was 10, she recalled Interstate 88 was being built. “My parents wouldn’t let us walk down here,” she said of the junction with the general store. The interstate sounded the death knell for the tourist trade along Route 20.

“My dream was to fix it,” Merrill said of the old Sharps Corners store. “Then I saw someone fixing it … It was Tim Coughtry.” He made it into an ice cream and sandwich shop.

Merrill, who has worked for years at Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland and loves her job there, was waiting on tables in February 2023 when one of two women she was serving said Merrill looked familiar.

“One was my age and the other was elderly,” Merrill recalled. She never forgets a face, she said, but couldn’t place this one.

Merrill told the women, “I live all the way out on Route 20, six houses past Ma’s gas station.”

“I live five houses past Ma’s,” responded the woman who was her age.

That was Kimberly Mariani, and it turns out she is exactly Merrill’s age, 58. The elderly woman was Mariani’s grandmother, Barbara Mariani Jones, who had recognized Merrill, having seen her mowing her lawn at home.

The women both value their country life and the solitude it brings.

But later that month, Tim Coughtry, Mariani’s father, died.

“Kim came knocking on my door and said, ‘Remember you said how much you loved that ice cream shop?’” Merrill recalled.

“He put so much love into this place,” said Mariani as she sat in the shop this week with her friend, Merrill. Coughtry renovated it more than a dozen years ago, updating the equipment but preserving the old-time charm.

“He cherished it,” said Mariani.

The walls are lined with photographs Coughtry took along with nostalgic signs and memorabilia. A wooden phone booth, with a working phone, stands in one corner.

“I opened last year. I’m an attorney,” said Mariani, as is her mother, Jo Ann, who had a law office, also captured in one of Coughtry’s pictures, in a red barn. “I don’t know how to make ice cream … Donna managed everything.”

“She does what I can’t do,” said Merrill, noting that Mariani handles scheduling and payroll.

She also noted that Mariani's partner of 15 years, Steven Ferraro, has been invaluable, helping with maintenance and landscaping.

“I’m attracted to hard-working, strong, well-educated women,” said Merrill, noting that she also likes working for Laurie Ten Eyck at Indian Ladder Farms.

“It’s a family tradition we wanted to carry on,” said Mariani. “It’s a nostalgic corner that we remember growing up.”

She said that not only is the atmosphere different from a chain like Stewart’s but the ice-cream is too.

The shop has 15 people on its payroll, Mariani said, mostly high school students some of whom have now gone on to college but still enjoy summer work at the shop.

“All the girls came back. They are very loyal,” said Mariani. “They’re all local.”

“I know in my heart how important this place was,” said Merrill.

She wanted to help the family business stay up and running but didn’t want to give up the full-time job she loves at Indian Ladder Farms. So she comes in at 5 a.m. each morning to make ice cream and start the prep work for the day.

Coughtry, she said, was “super organized” and kept recipes for all of his ice-cream specialties. “He has large USA-made machines,” she said.

Merrill watched YouTube videos to learn the basics of ice-cream-making and has improved her techniques based on customers’ comments.

Gesturing to one of the Emery Thompson machines, Merrill says, “This is where the magic happens.”

She shops locally for ingredients: strawberries from Altamont Orchards, for example, and hand-selected peaches from Gade Farms.

One ingredient that is not local is the high-end vanilla imported from Madagascar.

Merrill cleans the machine meticulously any time she makes an ice cream with nuts to be sure no one with allergies to nuts is exposed.

The shop serves ice cream in cones, shakes, banana splits, sundaes, and floats with Saranac root beer.

“We also have home-baked pastries,” said Mariani.

“I make double chocolate-chip cookies and Italian cookies,” said Merrill, adding that she has already started baking rolls for the sandwiches.

The official opening will be on Mother’s Day, May 12, with free cones served to mothers from 6 to 9 p.m. A soft opening with soft ice cream will be held earlier.

The shop is open seven days a week.

The first year was a tough one for the women.

Mariani’s grandmother got sick at the end of March and Merrill’s mother got sick at Easter. Both women were in their 90s and had lived independent lives in robust health.

In between running the ice-cream shop and doing their other jobs, Mariani was visiting her grandmother at St. Peter’s Hospital and Merrill was visiting her mother at Albany Medical Center.

One wanted ice cream from Duckpond and the other wanted a hot dog.

Merrill said through tears that her mother died in July. 

“I lost mine in December,” said Mariani. “It was a tough year.”

It was also hard because regular customers would come in and ask, “Hey, where’s Tim?” Merrill recalled. “They would just come in to talk to him. People were heartbroken.”

Many regular customers offered to help. “These hard-working construction guys were coming in for coffee,” recalled Merrill. “And one would say, ‘Oh, your AC is leaking. Do you want me to help?’”

“The community was very supportive,” agreed Mariani. “I was happy we were able to carry it on.”

“I don’t like to sit around,” said Merrill. “I’m one of eight kids. My parents raised us with a work ethic.”

She went on about Mariani, “I’m glad she included me. She has homes in Florida and Lake George. The place could have been a fallen-down building.”

“It’s really important to me to see this carry on,” said Mariani. “My father put so much into this, it has to be continued.”

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