A floating dream

Photo by Cynthia Hochswender

With a whole summer’s worth of hot days still ahead of us, the time seems right to find a shady spot to sit and enjoy a cold, foamy beverage. No, I’m not talking about beer, but rather about a drink for the whole family: the root beer float.

Featuring only two simple ingredients, vanilla ice cream and root beer soda, the float is a drink that can be whipped up in a jiffy as a thirst-quencher or liquid dessert.

Though the history of this beverage of beverages is somewhat obscure, popular legend tells us that the roots of the root beer float can be traced back just west of Cow Mountain, to the small mining town of Cripple Creek, Colo. It was there that the first known root beer float was brought into the world by Frank J. Wisner, who ran a local brewery and soda fountain, and, by some accounts, the Cripple Creek Cow Mountain Gold Mining Company as well. 

The story has it that on the night of Aug. 19, 1893, Wisner found himself looking at the snowcapped peak of Cow Mountain and the full moon above it. Apparently a man of some creative vision, Wisner thought the moon looked a little like ice cream and, sensing a good idea, rushed back to his soda fountain to recreate the scene in a glass. 

After pouring a glass of his most popular soda, root beer, to represent the tall, dark mountain, Wisner set a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top to emulate the bright white moon he had seen. Thus the root beer float was born.

As an homage to the mountain that inspired its creation, Wisner billed the sweet, new delight as a Black Cow Mountain. The drink quickly became popular with adults and children alike, who dropped the mountain part, and began going up to the counter to ask for a “black cow,” a name that some still use today.

This simple beverage has been so well loved for so long that it has even inspired a holiday. While certainly not one of the major summer celebrations, National Root Beer Float Day takes place every year on Aug. 6. Yet, for a worrying moment in history, Wisner’s ice cream concoction and the beverage used to make it nearly became a thing of the past. In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras oil, a key ingredient in root beer, due to what were believed to be its carcinogenic properties. 

It was quickly discovered, however, that sassafras roots were not dangerous.