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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

Cool Times
at the Ice House

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Saloons were the primary establishments for drinking and socializing in Fredericksburg before 1920, but they never made a comeback after the repeal of Prohibition. Ice houses took the place of saloons for many Germans for a time after WWII.

In the beginning, Texas ice houses actually sold ice - specifically 25 lb. blocks of ice to use in home iceboxes in the days before refrigeration. Then a farsighted ice house owner saw a way to expand his business. He took advantage of the cold temperatures in the ice vault to store and sell not only ice but all kinds of food items that needed to be kept cold. Other ice houses quickly copied the idea.

As foot traffic in ice houses increased, proprietors brought in metal shelves and racks and added bread, snacks, chewing tobacco and cigarettes to the inventory. In Central, North and East Texas, ice houses evolved into convenience stores (7-Eleven was the largest).

In the Hill Country and South Texas, where beer was a big seller, ice house owners brought in chairs and set up domino and pinochle tables to take advantage of the cool air from the ice vault. People in the neighborhood would stop by after work to have a beer and catch up on the local gossip. On weekends they brought the whole family and made an evening of it.

Ice houses flourished even after most homes got electric refrigerators and air-conditioning. They adapted to particular situations.

In towns near lakes and rivers, ice houses sold bait, tackle and fishing licenses. In the Hill Country where deer hunting is big, ice houses sold ammo, and they added cold storage units so hunters could store their dressed deer carcasses.

While there is some spirited debate over what constitutes an honest-to-goodness Texas ice house, many experts agree that the South Texas ice house/beer joint/community center concept first formed in post-prohibition San Antonio where there were few taboos against beer drinking. By the late 1940s just about every San Antonio neighborhood had one.


Ice houses were not fancy, and no two were alike. They were boxy, functional and architecturally unattractive. Parking lots were often dirt or gravel. Some ice house parking lots looked like they were paved with beer bottle caps.

Inside decor was plain and simple with bare concrete floors and mismatched tables and chairs. Some ice houses had pool tables, juke boxes and TV sets. There were usually a few beer signs on the wall. Several Fredericksburg ice houses sponsored teams in the local bowling and softball league, and proudly displayed their dusty trophies behind the counter.

What all Hill Country ice houses had in common was ice cold beer (often advertised as "the coldest beer in town") and a friendly atmosphere. While some Hill Country ice houses sold liquor, they served no mixed drinks (liquor by the drink was illegal in Texas until 1970), although in Fredericksburg no one objected if one of the regulars brought in a bottle of schnapps to share on a cold winter afternoon.

A Saturday evening at a Fredericksburg ice house was just plain fun. Adults drank beer, played pinochle, gossiped and socialized. Children played baseball, kick the can and freeze tag in the open space out back.


Fredericksburg TX - Ji m's  Ice House
Jim's Ice House
Photo courtesy Gillespie County Historical Society.

There was a time when every major road coming into town had an ice house. Felix and Eddie Willie opened the first real ice house in Fredericksburg in 1948. Willie's Ize Box stood at 907 East Main Street in South Heights (across from Dairy Queen).

James Turrentine built Jim's Ice House in 1953. It stood at 528 West Main Street (today Bigs Convenience Store at the corner of Main and Bowie Streets).

Milton and Carleen Grobe opened 87 Ice Box in November 1961, and it soon became a popular community gathering place. The building still stands at the corner of US 87 South and Highway Street.

Lakeway Ice House on the Llano Highway sold ice, beer, cold drinks, groceries, smoked sausage and jerky. There was an air-conditioned customer lounge and a cold storage unit so hunters could store deer and turkeys.

Ice houses were important social centers in Fredericksburg until beer gardens came back in style and wine became fashionable.


Michael Barr
"Hindsights" June 15, 2023 Column

[
Ludwig Vorauer - Winemaker and Nurseryman ]
[ Sober Thoughts on Prohibition ]
[ Beer Wars ]



"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

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