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Helping hands at Dairy Valley

"Only in Oak Harbor.That's what Barbara Stewart has to say about the way the community has pitched in to help run Dairy Valley after her husband, Paul, was diagnosed with cancer and died April 17.For over 23 years, Paul and Barbara worked side by side at the popular Kettle Street business, scooping ice cream, selling fresh milk in their unique drive-through, filling coffee cups, and of course blending their famous chocolate shakes.Like nearby hamburger joint Kow Korner - which was torn down this summer - Dairy Valley became an Oak Harbor institution in those years. Residents who grew up eating Dairy Valley ice cream and hot dogs have been able to take a step back in time by visiting Paul and Barbara at the Kettle Street business. Older customers say they can share a piece of their childhood with their own kids just by walking through the old doors.While the fresh dairy products are a definite draw, it was undoubtedly Paul and Barbara Stewart's personality that kept the business alive and kicking during a period when Oak Harbor was infiltrated by corporate grocery stores and rival ice cream businesses.Stewart said that kids and dogs loved her husband, a quiet man who always had a piece of licorice or a biscuit to give away.I would come here if I was burned out or feeling low, loyal customer Tim Humenik explained. Between the two of them, they would lift me up and keep me going.When he heard that Paul died, Humenik said he knew Stewart couldn't run the business all by herself, so he volunteered to help - six days a week.Somebody's got to keep her out of mischief, he said, adding that there's a very good fringe benefit - Swiss chocolate cherry ice cream. I've gained five pounds.In fact, Stewart said she hasn't had any trouble finding volunteers to help her run the business, and just as importantly, keep her company. Family members, friends and customers quickly came to her aid.There's a whole stack of people who want to help, she said. After so many years they are like family.A group of Girl Scouts even volunteered in order to earn merit badges for community service. When I get done training them, they'll be able to work anywhere in town, she said.Fourteen-year-old Elisa LeDesky says she's wanted to work at Dairy Valley ever since she was three years old. She finally got the chance this summer.LeDesky said she and her parents were picking up some milk at the drive-in and they noticed that Stewart was looking worn out. When Barbara mentioned that she could use some help, the teen-ager jumped at the chance. The next day she went all the way to Bellingham to get a health card and was volunteering at Dairy Valley by the end of the day.It's cool. I like the way she teaches me, LeDesky said. I like everything about it, especially the old fashioned store. I always wanted to know how to make malts for people.Stewart is tickled by LeDesky's enthusiasm. She just as smart as a whip, she said. She loves it here.But even with all the support, Stewart said she can't keep running Dairy Valley forever. She said she's in the same boat as Herb Williams, the former owner of Kow Korner, who wanted to retire after running the hamburger business for over 40 years. He couldn't find anyone who wanted to run the business, so he ended up selling to Alaska USA. It was torn down to make room for a new bank.Stewart put Dairy Valley up for sale June 12. She also hopes someone will buy it and keep the business open, but she's realistic about the chances. After all, running an institution can be a difficult business.I'm working harder at 67 then when I was younger, and I would like to rest, she said.-------You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611. "

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