Old West gambler and lawman turned sportswriter Bat Masterson observed, in the
last column he wrote before he died, that the rich and poor get the same amount
of ice in a lifetime but the rich get their ice in the summer and the poor get
theirs in the winter.
Masterson used ice in this instance as a metaphor
but the literal truth, in Masterson’s day, was that the north had ice about any
time they wanted it and the sultry south had precious little of it in the good
ol’ summertime. Ships laden with ice that had been sawed from northern ponds and
lakes the previous winter visited the Texas
coast in its early days of statehood but most of Texas
never saw so much as a single cube of the stuff. When railroads
came to Texas in the early 1870s, the northern ice
was packed in sawdust-insulated cars and shipped to a hot and thirsty South, bringing
that cool commodity to communities far from the coast.
We don’t think of
ice as an agricultural crop but in those days the ice crop was almost as important
to the economy of the northern states as grain. Even so, supplies in Texas
rarely lasted past mid-July. Those fortunate few with the ways and means to build
their own icehouses did just that and shipped in their own private supplies of
ice, which makes us realize that Bat Masterson was probably more literally correct
than we’re giving him credit for.
the Civil War stopped shipments from the North, one of the main complaints in
Texas was the lack of ice, which led to Texas pioneering
artificial ice making and refrigeration. An ice-making machine developed in France
made it through the Union blockade and was quickly installed in San
Antonio. The icehouse and the icebox weren’t far behind.
|Glance at brief histories
of Texas communities where business from a given
year are listed and you notice how many towns
included an icehouse right along with the churches,
offices and cotton gins. In their time,
the icehouse served not only as a purveyor of frozen water but also as a sort
of community center and a convenience store, long before the term was invented.
One of the world’s best known convenience store chains, 7-11, owned by the Southland
Corporation, was originally known as the Consumers Ice Company and later as the
Southland Ice Company.|
Enterprising icehouse operators realized that people
might buy a cold beer or soda pop if such items were put on ice and sold. Milk,
too. And butter. And why not have the baker drop off some bread while he’s making
his rounds? It wasn’t long before that enterprising icehouse operator found he
was selling a lot more groceries than ice.
home, before the advent of the modern refrigerator, people used iceboxes. The
old iceboxes, which people didn’t seem to miss once they were replaced by refrigerators,
had hollow walls lined with tin or zinc. They were packed with insulation like
cork, sawdust, straw or seaweed. A large block of ice was stored in an area near
the top of the box, allowing cool air to circulate to otherwise perishable items
– milk, butter and the like – in the lower compartments. Water from the melting
ice had to be drained or emptied every day. When the ice was all gone, it was
time for another trip to the icehouse, or it was delivered by an iceman.
Daniel Wolf, speaking to editor Thad Sitton in the book Harder Than Hardscrabble,
remembered the iceman making his appointed rounds, same as the mailman. The iceman
showed up in a truck with the ice in the back of it, covered by big tarps. “You
could swap two dozen eggs for a block of ice,” Woolf recalled. “And many a time
we had a tremendous treat, because we made homemade ice cream with that block
As early as the 1920s, the number of Texas
icehouses began to decline as more homes got electricity and more refrigerators
were sold, but Texas still had more iceboxes than
refrigerators in the 1940s. By 1950, close to 90 percent of Texas families had
some kind of refrigeration, and that fact quickly made the community icehouse
and the family iceboxes relics from the past, relegated to long ago census counts.
former icehouse serves as post office in Odell|
Photo courtesy Barclay
Gibson, February 2007
old icehouses still dot the Texas landscape. Some
have been abandoned, shells of a once-thriving business, but others have been
converted into various enterprises and many of them specialize in beer. A new
generation of Texans is more inclined to think of the icehouse as a place to grab
a cold beer which, if you think about it, isn’t that different from the function
the icehouse served in its heyday.
The day of the icehouse and the ice
box has come and gone and won't be coming back. We don't sit on our porches in
front of a block of ice to get cool anymore. Come to think of it, we don't sit
outside on our porches much at all anymore. Mostly we go inside and turn on another
marvel of the modern world – the air conditioner.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
August 6, 2010 Column