People have been finding ways to bring the snowball, Baltimore’s old-school summertime staple, into the 21st century. In Hampden, you can get one with torched marshmallow creme. In Locust Point, cut fruit and ice cream are among the toppings. Of course, for the tradition-minded, nothing compares to the neighborhood snowball stand they grew up with, or a guy on the side of the road with a dozen or so jugs of neon-bright syrup.

Which may explain why, when Christopher Heller decided to give the oldest snowball stand in the city — and the country — a makeover, he met some resistance from customers. “There were some haters,” Heller said of The Peggy, the new name for the Walther Gardens spot.

Let’s back up. Maybe you didn’t realize this nursery in Northeast Baltimore even had the oldest snowball stand. New Orleans, perhaps the only other place in the world that loves the snowball as much as Baltimore, also has a very old stand — Hansen’s Sno-Bliz — but it opened in the 1930s. Walther Gardens launched its stand as far back as 1922 as a summer side business to the main nursery, known for its Christmas trees.

Stevie Hyle makes snowballs at The Peggy, a snowball stand that sits in front of a nursery on Walther Avenue. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“This is considered the oldest snowball stand in the United States,” former Walther Gardens co-owner Paula Wittek told The Sun in 2021. In 2022, they celebrated 100 years of the treat. But it wasn’t until branding expert and Helium Creative founder Heller came along that the stand really leaned into those oldest-in-the-country claims.

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After moving to Baltimore from South Florida with their two kids, Heller and his husband opened a Bolton Hill gift shop called The Margaret Cleveland. Last year, he decided to expand, purchasing Walther Gardens from Wittek and her brother, Matthew.

The property includes the Sinsz farmhouse, which dates back to the 1800s and which the Witteks had transformed into an inviting gift shop. Heller and his husband gave the retail space an overhaul and called it The Margaret Cleveland at Walther Gardens & Nursery.

Then he set his sights on the snowball stand.

Heller called it The Peggy, after his great-grandmother who lived to be almost 100. He switched up the ice, forgoing the usual chunkier, rock-salt-like consistency of the Baltimore confection in favor of a fluffy shaved ice he felt was more in line with what would have been served when Walther Gardens got started. “When I started doing market research, I saw that at the beginning, snowballs were created from blocks of ice that would have been coming down from north to south, and they would basically shave off part of it.”

Heller learned that egg custard, a very Baltimore flavor that tastes like vanilla but looks bright orange, had also originated at Walther Gardens. Descendants of the Sinsz family told him that the matriarch who started the stand cooked it up herself. “Every flavor that they offered would have been made from scratch,” Heller said. He tracked down the original egg custard recipe from the Sinsz family, replicating it in the kitchen behind the farmhouse with egg yolk, vanilla and pure cane sugar.

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The rest of the flavors, too, needed rethinking. “102 years ago, there weren’t these chemicals and these artificial flavors,” said Heller, so the brightly colored Baltimore-made Koldkiss syrups wouldn’t do. He swapped in offerings from French company Monin, sweetened with cane sugar, which Heller said creates a taste more balanced than corn syrup. The marshmallow creme, of course, would have to be organic. And the prices would need to reflect the premium ingredients.

A close-up of a snowball at The Peggy, the new name for the old Walther Gardens spot. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
The Peggy uses Monin syrup, which is sweetened with cane sugar, instead of the typical Koldkiss. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Surprise: Not everyone in Baltimore was happy with the result. “At first, people were like, ‘This isn’t egg custard, and this isn’t a snowball, because you’re not using crushed ice,’” he said.

The word on Reddit was that “it’s not the same and it makes me sad. Change is hard.”

On Google, critics dinged Heller for upending their childhood favorite. “Yeah… this isn’t the Walther Gardens snowballs I grew up on. The flavors are not good.. where’s the sugar???”

A “traditional place RUINED,” wrote someone else, with a green-face emoji.

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There were days when Heller said he left the business in tears after getting so much flak from customers. He turned to his husband, Ryan, and asked: “Did I make the biggest mistake in my life?”

But Heller decided to take some of his own advice. “I say to my clients all the time, if you’re authentic in your position and why you’re doing it, it will work out.”

He stuck to the plan, convinced that his updated, shaved ice snowball was actually true to the original. It was a process of “re-educating the market,” he said. And he eventually won some converts to what he calls “a real snowball.” Some of those haters are now his best customers.

Heller even partnered with Visit Baltimore this year to give out 1,000 snowballs during Preakness. He wants to add little Peggies everywhere. Could you have a snowball at the ballpark? Or when it’s snowing?

“Here’s my theory,” he said. “Even in the middle of winter, people will still go get ice cream. Why wouldn’t you get a snowball?”

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A classic egg custard snowball with marshmallow creme. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)