Local Current Blog

The leading manufacturer of music boxes for ice cream trucks calls Minnesota home

Mark Nichols outside his office. Photos by Cecilia Johnson/MPR.

The blare of an ice cream truck is like a pied piper for neighborhood kids, but where does the music actually come from? Some less-than-licensed operations will blast their own tunes in the street, but if the truck is part of a professional fleet, it’ll almost certainly be playing a Nichols Electronics music box.

Mark and Beth Nichols, of Bloomington, Minn., are the people behind the music. The leading ice cream music box manufacturers are based in Richfield, Minnesota, just miles from the Mall of America, and their office is only about five buildings from Mark’s childhood home. Together, Mark and Beth hold down the office. Every once in a while, they even attend novelty ice cream industry gatherings (yup, they know the inventor of the Choco Taco).

Mark’s late father started Nichols Electronics back in the early ‘50s, using his skills with transistors to reinvent the music box game. One of three children, Mark helped around the business as a kid, and he eventually took over operations.

Ice cream truck sales peaked during the early-to-mid-2000s, Nichols says, although certain markets (New York City, Arizona, and other densely populated and/or warm states) still do well. In addition to climate and population numbers, noise limitations play into the equation, too; in Bloomington, for example, amplified sound isn’t allowed on the streets. Ice cream trucks rarely venture into that suburb.

The Nichols all-star music box is the Digital II, an eight-song box that features “Brahm’s Lullaby” and “Turkey In The Straw.” Public-domain music is Nichols’s go-to; “It isn’t worth getting in trouble over rights issues,” he says, especially when public-domain songs are so recognizable as ice cream truck standbys. “The Entertainer” is a favorite of Nichols’s; after The Sting repopularized it in 1973, the Joplin rag was everywhere. The music box world picked up the trend.

Now, one of Nichols’s main projects is digitizing all of the boxes’ music. It’ll take a while, he says, but it’s worth it to preserve so many treasured songs. His father’s company is part of history, and he wants to make sure the songs and memories live on.

The Richfield space’s first room looks like a typical office, full of paper, two desks, and office chairs. But in the back, there’s a workbench with tools, circuit boards, and music boxes. On the side, a there’s a mini-machine shop (and a 3-D printer); every prototype has to be built at the office before Nichols can have it produced elsewhere (his suppliers are largely local). It’s a small space for a company that’s lasted several decades, shipped products across the world, and reached millions of hearts. But as the music box itself shows, there’s power in small things.

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