A Dilly of a Summer

Bob and Phyllis Litherland opened one of America’s first Dairy Queens in 1949.

Troy and Diane DeLeon pose in the same window where the Litherlands were photographed decades before.

Moorhead’s historic Dairy Queen at the corner of Main and Eighth Street draws visitors from all over the United States, along with daily crowds of treat-hungry locals. (Photo/Nancy Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

There’s a very good chance that more people have taken more photos in front of Moorhead’s historic Dairy Queen than at any other spot in the region.
Sandwiched between Main Avenue and the railroad tracks at the terminus of Eighth Street, the iconic shop has become a bona fide tourist attraction – so popular that it stocks souvenir T shirts for travelers who drive miles out of their way just to say they’ve been there. From Dairy Queen’s iconic curly-topped soft-serve cones to Dilly Bars and Blizzards, the Moorhead DQ has been a part of every Moorheader’s summer since its first window opened in 1949.
This summer, especially during July, the Dairy Queen will reach its apex. Owners Troy and Diane DeLeon are celebrating its 75th season, along with their own 30th as its proprietors. They’re only the second couple to oversee it, following in the footsteps of founders Bob and Phyllis Litherland.
“Troy was all in from the first, but I was on the fence,” Diane says of the days in 1995 when they were talking to the Litherlands about succeeding them. “I was already familiar with it; I’d bought my first DQ ice cream cake that January to celebrate my mother’s 75th birthday, and I’d even played with Dairy Queen dishes in my sandbox when I was little. But I had my doubts. We had a very young family, and I questioned whether we could earn a year’s worth of income in just eight months.”
Litherland reassured them: “It’s just like farming, and I’ve never had a failed crop.”
But it took a Sunday sermon by Rev. Craig Hanson to convince her to sign her name. “He talked about taking a leap of faith,” she recalls. “We took the leap, and the Litherlands took a leap, too, on selling to us.”
They landed on their feet. Now, after weathering some challenging moments early on, the couple continues to go to work every day from March 1 through the end of October, working with a crew of 25 to 28 whom they call “co-workers” rather than “employees.” Together they serve what sometimes seem to be endless lines of hungry customers queued up along the sidewalk, passionate about the traditional DQ treats they pass through the front windows.
July has long been a special month for the DeLeons and their customers. They call it Miracle Treat Month, joining other franchisees across the country with an all-out push to raise funds for children’s medical care, in their case Fargo-Moorhead’s Sanford Children’s Hospital.
In observance of their diamond anniversary, Diane and Troy have set an ambitious goal for their support of the nonprofit children’s hospital. After raising more than $43,000 in their month-long campaign in 2023, they’re aiming higher – $75,000. They are selling the Miracle Network Hospital balloons that have become a tradition. Customers who buy them for $1 each sign their name, to be displayed in the store. In return, they receive coupons for a buck off a size shake or Blizzard. The promotion generally exceeds $1,000 in contributions.
They’ve added a special “buy now, use later” deal for businesses and those interested in larger donations. This year, customers are buying coupons for 100 Blizzards for $550. “We’ve already sold about half of the 1,000 bundles,” Troy notes. The DeLeons and their co-workers have already made up some 8,000 of the small Oreo, peanut-butter cup, cookie dough and strawberry shortcake Blizzards, all labeled and stored in the shop’s capacious freezers.
All proceeds of the Blizzard bundles go directly to the children’s hospital. Meanwhile, the buyer has 100 day-brighteners to share with their employees, their families, their neighbors and whatever beneficiaries that inspire them, including two popular choices. First responders and nurses. Customers have ranged from American Crystal, Scheels, Laney’s, Bell Bank and Rick Electric to a trio of grandmothers who pooled their cash to buy a supply for their grandchildren.
The Dairy Queen’s fame has been spreading far and wide. In 2015, NBC reporter Harry Smith traveled from New York for a segment on the Weekend Today Show. He summed up the shop’s appeal: “The Dairy Queen in Moorhead, Minnesota, is serving up nostalgia in every scoop of ice cream. This ‘rogue’ DQ offers favorites from the past that you won’t find on the corporate menus anymore.”
Not only that. When he chatted with the DeLeons’ younger daughter, then a junior at Moorhead High, he learned she was hoping to play fast-pitch softball in college. He suggested she look at his alma mater, Central College in Pella, Iowa … and went further. When she played in a tournament in Des Moines, the Central College coaches were there to watch. The NBC correspondent also sent a letter of recommendation. She ended up enrolling.
That’s one of the highlights the DeLeons love to recall. Another occurred two years later. When Moorhead native Matt Cullen’s Pittsburgh Pirates won the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup, the former Spud stand-out brought the trophy back to his home town. He showed it off in an open-air celebration at the Dairy Queen that attracted some 3,000 fans and followers.
And just last year, they were charmed when they viewed entries in the annual cake decorating contest at the Minnesota State Fair. Its theme was “roadside attractions.” Not one, but two cakes were decorated in the style of the Moorhead Dairy Queen. “And neither of the entries was from here. Both were by people from the Twin Cities,” Diane points out.
After 30 years, Diane and Troy are ready to take life easier. But selling the beloved downtown Dairy Queen is not a simple task.
“It’s time,” Diane states flatly. But they won’t turn it over to just anyone.
“We could sell it in a minute to a corporation,” she says. “But that’s not what we’re looking for.”
Adds Troy, “We need to be picky about who buys it. We want to carry on the same tradition that the Litherlands started and passed on to us. We hope to find new owners who will be a part of the operation – who will be here every day.”
“Otherwise,” his wife interjects, “they’d miss all the fun.”

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