Ortman family history in Berkeley goes beyond ice cream

ortmans ice cream berkeley
Ortman’s Ice Cream Parlor at Solano and Colusa avenues.


Since it’s a holiday weekend in July, it seems like a good time to remember a favorite ice cream name of the past — Ortman’s.
Bill Ortman was a Berkeley native and a veteran of World War II who opened an ice cream parlor on Solano Avenue after the war, moving it to Solano and Colusa avenues in 1950, where it continued until 1993. The location is now a Starbucks.
There was a second Ortman’s location at the top of Fairmount Avenue in El Cerrito that was popular, but did not last as long as the Berkeley parlor.
The Ortman family has a long association in Berkeley, in particular with the dairy business in the city’s early days, as columnist Hal Johnson explains below in a 1943 column in the Berkeley Gazette.
In addition, as noted in Ortman’s 2012 obituary, “Bill’s father (Charles) was a Lieutenant with the Berkeley Fire Department, and was killed in 1939 while saving three children from a burning house.”

Steve Finacom of the Berkeley Historical Society wrote about the fire and rescue in 2014 in his “Berkeley: A Look Back” column in the Berkeley Voice:

“First Lieutenant Charles J. Ortman, 45, is dead today following his heroic rescue of three young children from the smoke-filled home of Mr. and Mrs. George G. Rogers, 1837 Rose Street, shortly after 8:30 last night, ” the Berkeley Gazette reported Feb. 2, 1939.
Ortman lived across the street from the Rogers home. He was off duty and at home, when “the fire tapper in the house sounded” — we’ll assume that was a device to alert off-duty staff that there was an alarm — and he heard on his shortwave radio that the call came from his block.

Rushing outside, Ortman found his neighbors on the street and smoke pouring out of their front door. Entering the house he rescued their 4-year-old granddaughter and her siblings, twin babies, just as on duty firemen arrived. Ortman then grabbed a hose and led the effort to put out the fire in a bedroom. Inspecting the attic, he died of an apparent heart attack.

City flags flew at half-staff for the Berkeley native, a member of the department since 1912.

The funeral took place on Feb. 3, starting at Berg’s Funeral Home, 1936 University Ave.

Traffic was stopped as the cortege moved up Shattuck to University, then north to St. Mary Magdalene Church, where a requiem mass was held.

Ortman was survived by his wife and two children. He was, the paper said, one of 112 fire department staff in 1939.

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A 1903 ad for the Peralta Jersey Dairy owned by Henry Ortman.

Below is the 1943 column by Hal Johnson about Henry John Ortman’s North Berkeley Jersey Farm. It recounts a 1903 fire at the dairy that was extinguished with buckets of milk and may have inspired Bill Ortman’s father to join the Berkeley Fire Department.
The Henry J. Ortman House is not only still standing at 1824 Rose St., it was selected for one of this year’s Preservation Awards from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association commending its renovation.

ortman dairy 1943a

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A cow grazes in North Berkeley with the Peralta Park Hotel in the background.

ortman dairy 1943b

ortman dairy 1943c

ortman dairy 1943d

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An ad for the El Cerrito location of Ortman’s 1954.

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A 1959 ad for Ortman’s in El Cerrito.

Solano at Colusa shortly after Ortman’s became a Starbucks location.

Chris Treadway

  • Mark Somerville

    I miss Ortman’s yet still. My grandfather, Harry Berthelsen, became Bill’s friend when they moved to Solano and we were dedicated customers until it closed. As good as McCallum’s was, we only went to Ortman’s.

  • kromman

    Thanks for the great story, As a kid I mainly went to Ortman’s for their bubble-gum ice cream, but always felt that McCallums made a better product. Robert McCallum was a great fellow as well. My mother used to tutor him in Spanish, and he had a beautiful little vacation house in Taxco Mexico.

  • Troy Toshio Takaki

    I loved Ortman’s as a kic. I loved this thier slushies

  • David Gibson

    I would dip a glazed raised donut in my split pea and ham soup. My dad would always have butter brickle ice cream.

  • dsd510

    I remember loving trips to Ortman’s as a kid. Thanks for sharing!

  • James Plunkett

    My friends and I always stopped at Ortman’s to get a nickel or dime slush on the way home from Thousand Oaks School. My Grandfather, Captain Lester Parker B.F.D.,worked with Lt. Ortman. Granddad transferred from the Police Dept. to The Fire Dept. in 1917. He had three young daughters at home and didn’t like having his pistol in the house. He was Chief Rose’s driver and was encouraged by Chief Rose to study the then new practice of Fire Science. He wrote the NYFD and requested all their Training Manuals, which he would read and give to all the other guys he worked with to read. After Chief Rose died, Chief Haggerty led the Fire Department, my grandfather had worked for him when he was the Captain at Engine Two, Chief Haggerty encouraged Granddad to take the Lieutenant’s Test. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1932, and started going to City Council Meetings to push for a new, state of the art Drill Tower. Chief Haggerty again encouraged my grandfather to take the Captain’s Test in 1937, and he was promoted to Captain in early 1938, working at his favorite House, Engine Two. Chief Haggerty stopped by to see him and wanted him to go with him to look at the new Station, Engine Six at Ninth and Cedar. When they got to the House, Chief Haggerty told him ” The reason I brought you down here Les, is that your going to be the first Captain in this House. And by the way, your now the Drill Tower Instructor too.” Granddad protested that there were other Captains who were senior to him and had more experience, “No” Chief Haggerty said, “They don’t know as much about training as you do Les.” My grandfather would spend the next eight years at Engine Six, and was always glad he had.

  • FourQ

    Ortman’s was awesome. They had the best egg salad sandwich the world has ever seen. I’m still pissed at Starbucks.