The Man Behind Chapel Hill’s Iconic Ice Cream

The Man Behind Chapel Hill’s Iconic Ice Cream

Dairy Farmer Bob Nutter has spent more than 50 years at Maple View Farm, tending to his land, his cows and his community

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Photo by Briana Brough.
Photo by Briana Brough.

“Is he selling himself short?” asks Allison Nichols-Clapper before sitting down comfortably on the couch in Bob Nutter’s family room. A partner in the Maple View Ice Cream shop, she’s come up the road to go over some business with Bob, who sits on a quilt-covered couch in the family room of the farmhouse.

I’m not sure,” I say. “I think he may be.”

With over 50 years to cover, there’s plenty of material for the 87-year-old to discuss without boasting. And after suffering a pretty bad stroke in January – one year after the passing of his beloved wife Chris – speaking at all takes some effort for Bob. His voice rolls out low and gravelly, and he’s deliberate with his words, which still come out in an unshakeable Maine accent. Bob’s Southern speech therapist kept mistaking his unusual pronunciation for effects of the stroke. She eventually realized that the Yankee farmer was never going to sound like a North Carolinian, no matter how hard she tried.

With help from doctors and therapists at UNC, Bob feels good about his progress. “It’s going to be OK,” he insists. “I’m going to whip it, I think.” And it becomes clear in chatting with him that his determination remains intact, as does his entrepreneurial spirit and his understanding of how, and why, his farm has grown and thrived.

THE ROAD TO MAPLE VIEW

The story of Maple View Farm begins in Maine, and it begins in winter. Bob grew up on his family’s dairy farm there, and unlike his bookish sisters, Bob had a knack for farmwork and “liked everything about it.”

But in 1962, when he was 33, it snowed 42 inches between Christmas and New Year’s. “And the wind blew every day,” he remembers. That spring, Bob loaded three bull calves into a truck and delivered them one at a time to farms in New Jersey, North Carolina and Georgia.

“I got back home in April, and I told my father there was a better place to be in the dairy business,” Bob recalls. “And he said, ‘If you want to move, go on ahead,’ so we called the auctioneer Monday morning and we scheduled a sale and sold our milking cows. And then we came down here – me, my wife and five kids – and bought this farm.”

MAKING THEIR WAY

“This farm” is 400 acres of green, rolling hills studded only by Bob’s house and the cluster of white buildings needed to keep and milk the cows and do the bottling. It’s one of those farms that looks exactly like the image you learned in childhood – a preserved gem that survives in the economically tricky spot between self-nourishing homesteading and industrial agriculture.

“We are a small enough company that the big people don’t bother us,” Bob says, letting out the sneaky laugh of a kid who’s gotten away with something good. “We sell all the milk we produce to local people.”

According to Bob’s son, Roger, the half-century of dairy farming has taught them what they can and cannot reasonably do in this market. They’ve focused on being local instead of being organic. They will probably not tinker with proteins in their milk to make it more digestible.

Over the years, there have been missteps and disasters, like when their cows helped themselves to wild onions in the pastures one spring and ended up producing milk that tasted noticeably of garlic. Roger winces and says, “Oh man, the phone rang off the hook about that: ‘What’d you do to your milk?’ People think they want grass-fed milk. Well, try it.”

Another spring, one of the two original silos wore out, its metal support bands creaking and popping before the whole thing fell like a tree, first cracking the other silo, then taking down power lines and finally coming down near a group of grazing cows. Miraculously, no animals were harmed, but it took three full days and the help of good neighbors to clean up the avalanche of grain, and neither silo has been usable since.

These days, the farm consists of about 325 cows, 160 of which will each produce 9 or 10 gallons of milk daily. In 1996, Bob realized that milk prices were so low that the only way to survive as a farm was to start doing their own bottling. He sold a chunk of the land and built a plant that would bottle Maple View’s milk in what has become their signature glass containers.

“We had people laugh at us, saying we’d be broke in six months,” Bob says. “And we’re still going.”

“Are they still going?” I ask.

He takes in a breath and lets out a big, emphatic “no.”

UNC's Brice Johnson visited Maple View Farm in April, where he met with Bob and milked one of the cows.
Former UNC basketball player Brice Johnson visited Maple View Farm in April, where he met with Bob and milked one of the cows.

Cow to Cone to Community

The creative spirit that envisioned the bottling plant has kept Maple View growing and evolving for decades. In 2001, contemplating what could be done with the surplus cream they had from their best-selling skim milk, Bob hatched a plan with his daughter, Muffin (who sadly passed away in 2010). “I said to her, ‘Don’t you think we could make some ice cream?’” he says. “And she thought about it a minute and she said, ‘Yeah, we could!’ We went up to Penn State, and there was a man there who did ice cream tours, so I got him to draw us a plan.”

And that’s how the ice cream store was born. In the years since, Bob has seen it become more than just a place to get a scoop or three of a favorite flavor (his, he claims, doesn’t exist – he gets something different every time). He sees the kids running on the hill, grandparents rocking on the porch, and everyone enjoying the view. It’s an experience, or as he puts it, “just a chance to get out into the country.”

Because he has seen the area grow so much in the time he’s lived here, Bob has arranged for a great deal of his farm to remain unchanged forever. “We put it in the agricultural easements,” he says, “so the whole thing will be farmland. It won’t be developed.” This ensures that how Maple View looks today is essentially how it will always look, that locals will always have a place to get out into the country without going too far.

In 2009, the agricultural center was built to help educate people about farming. “We have kids who come who have never been to a farm,” Allison says, “or they think they have a farm because they have a dog at home. It’s really cute. Our goal isn’t just to promote Maple View but to promote all the farms in the area, like the Lattas’ eggs or Portia and Flo at Chapel Hill Creamery.”

In the last few months, with all the challenges Bob has had to handle, Allison insists that he is still working, especially as a spokesperson. When he was in the hospital, he promoted the farm by giving out wooden coins for a dollar off at the ice cream shop. He still visits there and consults on developing flavors, taking pictures with customers who ask. He even recently had his eyeglasses replaced. Why? “The old ones were getting caught in people’s hair when he hugged them,” Allison says.

“There’s the ice cream shop, and Mike Strowd who runs the farm, and Roger who processes, but none of this would have been possible without Bob,” she says. “He’s my favorite part of Maple View.”

I look at Bob after hearing all these stories, and I say, “It seems you’re kind of a pioneer. Are you?”

He doesn’t sell himself short, as we thought he might, but all he says is, “Yes.”