For 90 years now vendors have been selling ice cream in Averbode in front of the abbey. The long lane in which ice cream vendors gather to lure tourists and inhabitants alike, has received the name ‘lekdreef’, or ‘licking lane’ throughout the years. The Laeveren family stood at the cradle of this lane and sold ice cream for three generations.
The mother and father of the Laeveren family were selling ice cream right at the start. Their daughters, Jeanne and Rosa, took over their business, and in their turn they passed the torch to their children. Today their legacy lives on at the gate of the abbey, where you can still buy a cone of ice cream.
The first generation
Professional soldier Isidorus ‘Dorus’ Laeveren got the idea to make ice cream in the 1920s. After seeing an ice-cream parlour at the citadel of Diest, he and his wife Amalia Bergen, ‘Amelie from Dorus Keubber’, decided to switch their careers around. They bought their first ice cream machine, with which you had to make ice cream by hand, and they bought a bicycle with an ice-cream cart behind it. That was way cheaper than buying a carrier tricycle, or as the people called it a ‘triporteur’.
Making ice cream by hand takes a lot of work, and on top of that the vendors had to collect to necessary ice cubes and biscuits. There was no shortage of milk though. Amalia and Dorus’ daughter Jeanne remembers that when her parents were selling ice cream – and later when she was selling it – the farmers would even come to offer their milk.
After the war ice cream was a luxury product. The first customers weren’t locals, but rather pilgrims on their way to the Scherpenheuvel basilica. The ‘Abdijpoort’ – gate of the abbey – was their spot to take a break, and afterwards they could continue their journey on foot or by bike. The lane of the abbey, in which Amelie sold ice cream every day, soon got the nickname ‘lekdreef’ or ‘likdreef’, ‘licking lane’. ‘In the beginning our father sold ice cream in little wafer cups. Those were filled with and then smoothed out,’ Jeanne explained in 2008 in an interview with Joris Pironet from the Averbode local history club.
The licking lane was the place to be not only for ice cream, but also for orange squash or sweet cherries for example.
The second generation
It didn’t take too long until Jeanne and Rosa, Amelie and Dorus’ daughters, came to help out in the business. Jeanne was barely 13 years old when she first started helping, occasionally skipping school while her mother had to run home to resupply. A little while later she even got her own carrier tricycle, which her mother told her would be her wedding gift when she would get married.
When they were old enough to leave the house, Jeanne and Rosa made selling ice cream their day to day profession. They each started their own company, and even got nicknames: Jeanne and Rosa ‘Crème’.
Their ingredients they got from different sources: milk from neighbouring farmers, and other supplies from wholesale businesses in Scherpenheuvel. The biscuits they got from a city somewhat farther away, Diest. ‘If it had been a busy day and the biscuits and cones were all sold, I had to bike to Diest really quickly the next morning to lay in stock,’ Jeanne said. ‘But that stock was never big, because I could only carry 4 tin cans per bike trip. And sometimes I had to bring home an ice cube from the brewer’s too.’
‘An ice cube could weigh up to 25 kilograms. ‘Our father had reinforced the seats of our bicycles,’ Rosa remembers. At each side of the seat there was a bag to put half a cube in. ‘And then we put half a cube in a gunnysack on the seat itself. So in total we could take 37.5 kilo’s on a trip to Eindhout,’ Jeanne adds. ‘It was hard work pushing our load across the sandy path and over the cobbled street from Veerle to the Poortberg street. When I came home my backside would be frozen and my clothes would be wet from the melting ice. We can laugh about it when we look back now, but back in the day we didn’t have much reason to laugh.’
Though the sisters got along quite well, they remained each other’s biggest competitors on a professional level. Jeanne and Rosa tried to outdo each other at evert turn. ‘Except for each other we had several other competitors, but still we would race each other in pushing our heavy carrier tricycle filled with vanilla ice cream before the break of day to try and get the best spot possible. Because the closer you were to the abbey, the more ice cream you would sell to the pilgrims leaving Mass. Especially on Sunday’s after High Mass that was thé highly desired spot for which we fought.’
Those pilgrims often were Dutch people on a pilgrimage by bike to Scherpenheuvel – a local place of pilgrimage. At the abbey they would halt to catch a breath and to enjoy a refreshing ice cream. In order to not lose any customers, the vendors even let the tourists pay with Dutch guilder. ‘Sometimes we would leave before the 8 o’clock Mass. The Dutch people on their way to Scherpenheuvel would pass Averbode this early, or they were on their way home again.’
But it wasn’t just about being the closest to the gate of the abbey, the sisters and their competitors would use other, more subtle tricks too. They all had their own recipe, but wouldn’t back out of trying to steal away each other’s customers by using a small lie or a trick. Furthermore they made deals with the priests from the abbey or they would outsmart each other by not telling the others about a scouts group needing a big supply of ice cream.
And that could occasionally lead to a fight. The workers from the nearby printer remember when there was an argument between vendors, after which they saw coins all over the ground. The workers then helped pick up the coins. It didn’t take long until the vendors decided to lay down some rules. They decided to take turns occupying the spot closest to the gate, and while they were waiting they would taste each other’s ice cream. The customers were divided too. When one vendor went to sell at a hotel, the other would sell someplace else.
Jeanne didn’t only find her professional calling in ice cream, but she found love too. Taxi driver Armand Boxberger would bring customers to the abbey on a regular bases, and afterwards he would stick around for a while to buy one of Jeanne’s ice cream cones. It wasn’t long before their love sparked and they got married in 1942. The newlywed couple moved away to Diest for some years, leaving the tricyle that Jeanne had gotten as an early wedding gift from her parents to Jeanne’s sister Rosa.
Both sisters enlist their husbands to produce and sell ice cream as well. Rosa teaches her husband Jef Thielens to make ice cream that he can sell in the lane. ‘If we saw a group approaching, I would already start preparing a series of galettes with scoops of cream so as to serve the customers more quickly, which meant I could help most people of the group. I taught Jef to do that as well,’ she says.
Not unexpectedly, during the war the ice cream sales plummet. All raw materials are put into the war effort, and the means to make ice cream are scarce. There is no flour, which means no galettes or cornets. The sisters solve that problem by serving their scoops in carton dishes. Sugar was rationed, but they found a way around that by buying the rationing seals from (other) families. These households received less sugar that way, but the sisters made up for it by providing them with handmade ice cream. To get enough milk, they sometimes even had to blackmail the farmers that were previously so keen to sell.
After the war, tricycles slowly but surely were replaced by motorized versions, and a little while later even by vans, in which Jeanne would make a big tour in Averbode, Zichem, Veerle and Ter Hoeve. With her motorized tricycle, Rosa takes on Okselaar and Molenstede. As the large ice blocks are now also being deliverd by trucks, the girls don’t have to bike to and fro anymore. Their jobs get more comfortable throughout the years. The originally difficult ice cream carts turned into more easy vans with a speaker to play music that announced their arrival, just like the ice cream vans that we know today.
More and more people get a freezer in their homes, which enables them to conserve their ice cream for longer periods of time. When Rosa’s husband starts ‘het IJsroosje’, which is presumably a wordplay on his wife’s name, he also modernizes and begins selling readymade freezer ice cream. People don’t only go to Averbode to enjoy a delicious ice cream, they also stock up their freezer to enjoy later.
The third generation
After a while it gets so busy that Rosa’s and Jeanne’s kids have to step in to help as well. For Rosa, her daughter Nicole lends a helping hand, for Jeanne, it’s her son Jean-Pierre. It even gets so busy that they invest in several vans.
The licking lane is gaining more and more fame, and at one moment in the sixties, the lane even surpasses the abbey with its renown. During these years, pilgrims but tourists as well, from all over Belgium come to Averbode. Originally they come mostly by bus, but cars are getting more popular: people buy their own and drive around on Sundays. This new trend leads to a lot of parking problems by the end of the sixties.
These new tourists mean more work, which leads to Rosa asking her daughter Nicole to provide a helping hand in the family business. It doesn’t take long for one of these new customers, his name was Freddy Martin, to develop an interest in Nicole. The two get married and Freddy joins the ice cream business.
Starting from 1969 the tv-program ‘Wij Heren van Zichem’ (literally translated: Us Gentlemen of Zichem) is broadcasted, and in the middle of the seventies the recreational domain ‘De Vijvers’ (The Ponds) opens its doors. Furthermore, a touristic car route, the Taxandriaroute, is opened by the province of Antwerp and the Royal Dutch Tourist Union, the ANWB. This route, that starts in the Dutch city Breda, also leads Dutch tourism to Averbode and its licking lane. These foreign tourists didn’t even have to exchange their money for its Belgian counterpart, but could just pay their ice cream in Dutch guilder.
Jeanne as well notices that more tourists means more work, so she asks the help of her son Jean-Pierre. When he marries, his wife Florke Vrijdags starts helping too, and Jeanne’s husband Armand helps out whenever necessary as well. That happens to be quite often, because the amount of tourists keeps growing.
Finally, in the beginning of the nineties, Jeanne decides to put an end to her career. During her life, she established her own company brand from scratch, which was a lot of hard work. On the one hand, she has a few regrets about not enjoying her youth enough, but on the other hand she is very proud of what she accomplished: ‘I’m happy all of our efforts weren’t wasted.’ Rosa and her husband decide to retire as well.
A new era
With its founding sisters retired, it doesn’t take long before the rest of the family decides to end the ice cream tradition as well. At the end of the nineties both companies are sold: the Gijbels family takes over IJsroosje, and Andy Van den Bossche becomes the new owner of ‘t Melkijsje.
Just like their predecessors, the new owners experience that the licking lane is still gaining popularity. New ice cream vendors are joining the lane, which increases the competition. One of these competitors creates a revolution: Postel IJs starts experimenting with flavours. Originally, IJsroosje and ‘t Melkijsje only sold the basic flavours, but they have to adapt to keep their customers.
The businesses start competing for the most and best flavours. But because the other vendors immediately follow when one of the others comes up with a new flavour, it doesn’t take long for the latest competitor Postel IJs to close up shop.
The other ice cream venders in the lane also get their share of troubles. In 2015, the decision to make the area car free doesn’t do the vendors any favours. They are afraid the customers will stay away if they have to park their cars some distance away.
Furthermore, the standing grounds for the ice cream vans get more expensive, something they have to calculate into their prices. Luckily the customers are willing to pay a few extra cents for their favourite ice cream.
The original longform, including a shorter timeline overview, can be found here.
Text: Sofie Verdonck and Maïthé Chini