Russell Charles Nicoll, whose quaint roadside date shop in Riverside County blossomed into a busy and lucrative international mail order business, has died at the age of 90.
Nicoll, who died Saturday at John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio, took credit for inventing the date milkshake at his modest Valerie Jean Date Shop on California 86.
He opened it in 1928 and continued to operate it at a bend in the highway five miles south of Thermal for more than half a century. He sold the shop only last May.
“I remember him for his sincerity and honesty, and everyone in the valley knew him as a man who paid his bills, which I guess would be integrity,” said Edward Kirby, who bought the shop from him. “He never had a bad year financially, even during the Depression.”
Nicoll moved to the Coachella Valley in 1919 after serving in the Army during World War I.
Start of Business
In 1928, with his life’s savings and a $500 bank loan, Nicoll converted a roadside shack into the date stand and named it for his daughter, Valerie Jean, who now lives in Tucson.
Kirby said Nicoll had “never been challenged at all” as the inventor of the date milkshake.
According to an article in True magazine 1945, Nicoll learned through his study of dates that some Arabs existed solely on dates and goat milk. That inspired him to experiment with a date-based beverage, and ultimately he created his famed concoction.
What began as a one-man operation quickly grew into a clientele of the rich and famous. Pope Pius XII was a mail-order patron as was the king of Morocco and several film stars. At its peak during the Christmas season, 60 employees are used to mail more than 70,000 packages of Valerie Jean dates throughout the world.
Faye Coady, now the shop’s manager, recalled that when she first applied for a bookkeeping position she didn’t see why a full-time person was needed.
“It looked like just a little road-shop shop.”
Nicoll also is survived by his wife, Kathryn.