grim determination, a normally peaceful, law-abiding man just having
learned he’s been wronged straps on his six-shooter aiming to make
things right. Enter his pleading wife, who with tears or threats
or both prevails on her husband to put the gun away and turn the
figurative other cheek.
That’s a cliché Western movie scene, but in my family, one time
it really happened. The injustice that nearly triggered an episode
of Old West-style violence did not stem from the need to avenge
a killing, deal with a philanderer or handle a horse thief. On a
hot summer afternoon in the early 1900s, it had to do with ice.
The protagonist in this real-life Western episode was my great-grandfather
Adolph Wilke, a first-generation Texan whose father immigrated to
from Germany. It happened in Ballinger,
then a bustling West Texas town on the upper Colorado River.
As my granddad, L.A. Wilke (1897-1984) told the story, for a time
his father made his living operating an ice wagon. He got his sawdust-packed
ice wholesale via train from Austin
or San Antonio. After
loading the standard 40-pound slabs into his wagon, he cut them
into 12.5-pound or 25-pound blocks and made his rounds selling them
for five or ten cents a block.
Often cloudy with ammonia that stunk when it melted, ice was nevertheless
a sure seller in the days before electric refrigerators. In fact,
the first self-contained electric refrigerator did not hit the market
in the U.S. until 1923.
Great-grandpa Adolph’s customers placed a block of ice into wooden
iceboxes that had pans beneath them to collect the water as the
ice slowly melted. Ice deliveries usually were daily.
Although he peddled a popular product, Adolph did not enjoy a monopoly.
Another man, my granddad recalled his last name as Haley, also sold
ice in Ballinger.
One day, the competitor pulled his team of horses up outside the
depot and picked up a shipment of ice intended for Adolph. Then
he started selling it.
Learning of this, as my granddad later put it, “Papa put on his
gun (a .38 revolver) and was going to go to town” to discuss the
matter with the other iceman.
At that point, my great-grandmother Mattie interceded and kept her
justly furious husband from settling the theft issue in the manner
of the late frontier. Granddad did not go into detail as to how
his mother stopped his father from leaving their house with his
gun, but he said her action likely averted a killing.
In the end, neither my great-granddad Adolph nor his business rival
prevailed in the market. As Ballinger
continued to grow and the technology got cheaper, someone finally
opened an ice plant there and started their own delivery service.
Handy with a gun since his earlier days as a cowboy, Adolph got
a job as a Runnels County sheriff’s deputy. He ran the jail, where
he lived with his family.
miles down the railroad tracks from Ballinger
Angelo, where my future grandmother, Viola Helen Anderson, lived
with her family.
She remembered the excitement when the first ice factory opened
Angelo. Her father carried ice home with tongs. Their first
icebox was just that, she said, a box with sawdust in it. Later,
they got a commercial wooden icebox.
“I thought we were the richest people in the world when we got our
first real icebox,” she recalled.
Ice distributors printed cards for people to display outside their
homes so deliverymen would know how much ice the family needed.
They would carry the ice on their back and take it straight to the
“You better have everything out of the way when they came in,” she
She and Granddad got married in 1916. They did not get their first
electric refrigerator until the mid-1920s, when they lived in Fort
Worth. Even then, she hadn’t wanted one, she said. She was satisfied
with the old icebox method.
remembered one funny incident indirectly concerning ice. In May
1910, when she was 12, the family living next door came down with
smallpox. A yellow flag fluttered from their porch, signifying that
the house had been quarantined.
Another neighbor was a widow whose son worked for the local daily
newspaper, the Standard.
One day, the young man came running home from the newspaper office
to announce the world was ending, apparently because of the approach
of Haley’s Comet. The widow rushed over to Grandmother’s house to
warn of the impending disaster.
The woman was terrified, but my great-grandmother scoffed at the
“Well,” she finally said, “if the world’s coming to an end, we might
as well make some ice cream.”
She told my grandmother to start breaking up some ice and then cranked
up the central telephone exchange for a connection to the people
next door with the smallpox. With the end of the world at hand,
she said, they might as well forget about the danger of contagion
and come over for some ice cream before they died. That scared the
fretful widow even more, Grandmother said.
Of course, the people with smallpox stayed put and Haley’s Comet
continued its interplanetary journey, leaving Earth no worse for
the wear. But the Andersons and their nervous neighbors sure enjoyed
their ice cream.
© Mike Cox
- June 26, 2013 column
More "Texas Tales"