There's always room for the Jell-O Museum

Le Roy is a pretty little town in western New York. Probably not a lot of people know about it, but millions know the famous product that first came from here more than a century ago.

Not that long ago, "There's always room for Jell-O" was one of the best-known ad slogans in America. Jell-O began its lively and "jiggly" life right here in Genesee County, just south of Rochester, N.Y.

Le Roy was the home of Pearle B. Wait, who developed a fruit-flavored gelatin dessert that his wife dubbed Jell-O. Wait trademarked the name in 1897, according to The Jell-O Gallery, which is located in Le Roy and relates the story of its namesake food. But Wait failed to make his idea profitable and sold the formula for $450 in 1899.

The product began gaining popularity when its new owners promoted it with magazine ads. It became part of the newly formed General Foods empire in the 1920s. Literally billions of those little, gaily-colored boxes of Jell-O have been sold around the world in the last 100 years. Unfortunately for Le Roy, the local factory closed in 1964, with production shifting to Dover, Del.

The Jell-O Gallery in Le Roy is a shrine to the dessert item and is well worth a trip off the beaten path. The museum has many interactive components and is fun for all ages. Kids especially enjoy the Jell-O "scavenger hunt."

Kate Smith, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and Andy Griffith all helped pitch the product over the years, and famed illustrators such as Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish lent their talents to Jell-O magazine ads, samples of which are on the gallery's walls.

"Of course, the most famous Jell-O spokesman of them all is comedian and television star Bill Cosby," said Caroline Bolin, who manages the gift shop at the gallery.

She said when Cosby visited Le Roy in 2004, more than 10,000 people came out to greet him. When he took the stage, he said "Imagine - I was eating Jell-O long before I got paid to eat it," drawing a roar from the crowd.

"It was quite a day in little Le Roy," Bolin said, laughing. The gallery has many photos and videos of the day.

Be sure and check out the exhibit on the "Jell-O Brain." Over the years, an often-heard rumor had it that a bowl of Jell-O emits electromagnetic waves similar to those from a human brain. True or false?

"In 1993, technicians at Saint Jerome's Hospital in Batavia (N.Y.) conducted a study to see for themselves and to solve this mystery," Bolin said.

And what did they find?

"Well," she said, "we have an exhibit that tells all about it, and I'll let you see for yourself."

Needless to say, the "Jell-O brain" is a highlight of the museum.

Next to the Jell-O Gallery is the headquarters of the Le Roy Historical Society. The two are connected by the "Jell-O brick road."

The society is housed in an 1800s Greek Revival mansion once owned by one of the town's founding fathers. Inside are displays of local history, local art and many one-of-a-kind items found only in the region. The building also tells the story of Le Roy's Ingham University, which helped pioneer higher education for women between 1837 and 1892.

A crowd favorite at the mansion is an early 20th-century kitchen.

"People love the kitchen in the Le Roy House," Bolin said. "Many say it looks just like the one their grandmothers used to have. The appliances are vintage, from the stove to the four-sided bread toaster."

To end a perfect day in Le Roy, spent immersed in local history, dine at one of the local landmarks.

The D&R Depot Restaurant is housed in the town's 100-year-old train station. The renovation is remarkable, the nostalgic photos on the wall are interesting, the food is delicious and, around the holidays, people are amused and charmed by the fully decorated Christmas tree hanging upside down from the ceiling of the main dining room.