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Icehouses—Vintage Spaces with a Cool History

During the early 1900s, virtually every Texas town had an icehouse, as ice manufacturing plants were known. In large part, they supplied block ice to the frosty icon of the era, the icebox.
Written by Randy Mallory.
In the days before refrigerators, local icehouses offered the coldest—and the “hottest”—commodity in town. The plants supplied businesses with ice and sold blocks of ice for home iceboxes. This 1913 photograph shows the interior of the Shiner Creamery & Ice Manufacturing Plant in Shiner.

Cubes of ice clink brightly in a tall tumbler of iced tea. Ahhh, what a refreshing sound! The cold chills your hand, and a nippy sip penetrates your very core.

Frozen water—so simple, yet so taken for granted. It conquers a sizzling day like water extinguishes fire. But what if there was no ice to tame the dog days of summer? That was indeed the sweltering reality in most of the Lone Star State 150 years ago.

Hellbent on creating cold, 19th-Century inventors in Texas helped lead the world into a new ice age. These men of ice proved that, even along the steamy Gulf Coast, folks could have a cold drink year round and, more importantly, preserve perishables at home and en route to distant markets.

Before the mid-1800s, the only ice in Texas (except during winter) came from the northern United States. Cut from frozen lakes and rivers, then transported on sailing ships to ports like Galveston, this natural ice helped preserve food for a growing coastal population. Inland, most families survived on food preserved by age-old methods—drying, smoking, salt-curing, and pickling.

During the Civil War, Union blockades of Confederate ports cut off Northern ice supplies. So, in 1862, a group of desperate Texas businessmen had a Carré absorption machine (later known as an ice machine) shipped to Mexico and then hauled overland to San Antonio. The machine, designed by Frenchman Ferdinand Carré, used ammonia to absorb heat and freeze water.

In 1865, an engineer named Daniel Livingston Holden redesigned and installed a more commercially promising Carré machine (one that used steam coils to heat the ammonia) in the Alamo City. Holden’s ice cost five cents a pound, half the high rate of New England ice at the dock. But with beefsteaks selling for two cents a pound, man-made ice, according to a San Antonio newspaper, remained “one of the greatest luxuries of civilization.”

At any price, ice was “hot” in subtropical San Antonio. Within a few years after the Civil War, the city boasted three ice companies when only five others existed in the rest of the nation. San Antonio inventor Andrew Muhl built a plant there in 1867, then planned another for Austin. San Antonio’s Daily Herald chided that Muhl would, indeed, run the capital city’s plant “for the benefit of that one horse town.” But the paper coolly declared that the venture “will not interfere with San Antonio’s prevailing arrangements for mint juleps.”

Texans’ passion for man-made ice snowballed. The state recorded a number of frigid firsts: the nation’s first commercial ammonia-compression plant (in 1873 in Jefferson); the first refrigerated slaughterhouse (in 1871 in Fulton); and the first refrigerated beef shipments (in 1868 from Palacios and Indianola to New Orleans by boat, and in 1873 from Denison to New York by rail).

Early meat-shipping successes proved the tip of the commercial iceberg. During the late 1800s, railroads, cobwebbing across the state, began transporting perishables in railcars refrigerated by ice enclosed in corner compartments. To replenish melted ice, ice plants and storage houses popped up all along the rail lines. Assured of cold shipment to far-off buyers, Texas’ beef, fruit, and vegetable industries expanded like never before.

During the early 1900s, virtually every Texas town had an icehouse, as ice manufacturing plants (as well as storage facilities) were known. In large part, they supplied block ice to the frosty icon of the era, the icebox.

Made of wood, lined with tin or zinc, and insulated with materials such as cork or sawdust, the icebox contained one compartment for ice and another for food. Underneath, a drip pan, which had to be emptied periodically, collected the melted ice. However messy, this ubiquitous appliance transformed ice from a luxury into a common commodity. (Many people still say “icebox” instead of “refrigerator.”)

Texas Icehouses

Electric refrigerators may have stolen their thunder, but icehouses across Texas still see lots of activity. All of the following sites are wheelchair accessible unless othewise noted.

Adapted Ice Plants

A number of historic ice manufacturing plants in Texas have been adapted to alternate uses. Such sites include the following:

Ice House Museum, 818 Ernest Ave. in Silsbee (77656). Hours: Mon-Fri 9-5. Admission: Free; donations appreciated. Call 409/385-2444.

The King Ranch Museum, in the Henrietta Memorial Center, 405 N. Sixth St. in Kingsville (78363). Museum hours: Mon-Sat 10-4, Sun 1-5. Admission: $4, $2.50 ages 5-12, free age 4 and younger. Discounts available for school groups and King Ranch package tours (call ahead). Mezzanine not wheelchair accessible. The center also houses King Ranch offices and hosts wedding receptions, parties, and business functions. Call 361/595-1881. Web site: www.king-ranch.com.

Icehouse Restaurant, 200 S. Second St. in Albany (76430). Hours: Mon-Thu 11-2 and 5-9, Fri-Sat 11-2 and 5-10. Call 915/762-3287.

Backdoor Theatre, 501 Indiana in Wichita Falls (76301). Only one performance space is wheelchair accessible, but accommodations are made whenever possible. Most performances presented Thu-Sat. Call 940/322-5000. Web site: www.backdoortheatre.org.

Luling Icehouse Pottery, 1115 E. Davis St. in Luling (78648). Hours: Thu-Sun 10-5:30. Call 830/875-6282.

Neighborhood Icehouses

You can find icy-cold beer (and sometimes more) at neighborhood icehouses across the state, including these legendary Houston icehouses:

West Alabama Ice House, 1919 W. Alabama (77098). Rest rooms not wheelchair accessible. Hours: Mon-Sat 9 a.m.-midnight, Sun noon-midnight. Call 713/528-6874.

Jimmie's Place, 2803 White Oak (77007). Hours: Mon-Fri 7a.m.-midnight, Sun noon-midnight. Call 713/861-9707.

Books

For more information on Texas' icehouse history, look for the following books (try interlibrary loan through your local library): The Men Who Created Cold by W. R. Woolrich (Exposition Press, 1967); Oh Thank Heaven! The Story of the Southland Corporation by Allen Liles (Southland Corp., 1977); The Ice Houses of San Antonio, Texas; A Photographic Essay of a Significant Social Institution by Carla Jane Taylor O'Neill (M.A. thesis, Univ. of Texas at Austin, 1989); and Pocket Guide to Best Texas Ice Houses by Brad Cornell (Lone Star Books, 1999), which offers a good rundown of existing neighborhood icehouses.

For items too large for the icebox (such as watermelons or sides of beef), you could rent a filing cabinet-size locker at the local icehouse, says longtime iceman Jack Ramsay, national sales manager of Dallas-based Reddy Ice. “With so many people coming and going, the icehouses also offered cold beer and soft drinks right off the docks.”

Beginning in the 1920s, electrical refrigerators for home and commercial use slowly melted away traditional icehouse business. So ice manufacturers zeroed in on the booming recreational market and began selling cubed and crushed ice for water coolers, parties, picnics, and sporting events. Texans who grew up during the heyday of block ice, however, cherish icehouse memories frozen, so to speak, in time.

Linda Hudson of Fort Worth grew up in the 1940s near Georgetown, the daughter of a cotton farmer. On the way home from the fields in the family’s blue ’38 Chevy, her father, Leslie Sybert, would always stop by the icehouse. “We always got a large block for our family’s icebox, wrapped it in a cotton sack, and carried it on the car’s bumper,” she says. “It dripped the entire five miles from town to our home.”

Marie Alsmeyer of Tyler holds more “statuesque” ice memories. Marie’s mother, a piano teacher in Falfurrias, had the icehouse make an ice sculpture for her student recitals each year. “They made a huge block of clear ice with a flower bouquet frozen in the bottom of it. Then they hollowed out a bowl in the top for punch, and the thing made quite a centerpiece,” she remembers.

To meet rising residential demands—for ice both plain and fancy—ice plants began delivering ice door-to-door.

To get ice on de­livery day, says Tom Scott, director of the Fannin County Museum of History in Bonham, you put a square or diamond-shaped sign in your front window or screen door. “The sign had a number on each corner representing an amount of ice—say, 5, 10, 25, or 50 pounds. You’d turn the sign and put the number on top for the amount you wanted, and the iceman brought it inside.”

Getting ice into the icebox, however, created a slippery challenge, adds Darrell Shine of Silsbee, where, as a youngster, he delivered ice seven days a week each summer for his grandfather. “When I was 10 or 12, it was hard to carry a 50-pound block and work with the ice hook to get it in the icebox. Sometimes I’d accidentally knock stuff out,” he says. “Many a time I cleaned up milk I’d spilled on the kitchen floor.”

The Silsbee ice plant, built in 1930 by Gulf States Utilities (now part of Entergy Corp. in New Orleans), distributed ice regionally from its railside location. Gulf States’ original charter, like that of many Texas utilities, required “providing electric energy, gas, water, and ice to the public.” And, like a number of utility-built icehouses, the Silsbee plant eventually found an alternate use. Closed in 1981, the structure became the Ice House Museum a decade later. Now a registered Texas landmark, with its Spanish Revival architecture and red-tiled roof, the museum exhibits locally produced artwork, along with a few icemaking mementos.

In Kingsville, one section of a former ice plant (now the Henrietta Memorial Center) houses the King Ranch Museum, a repository of historic ranch memorabilia. The permanent collection includes antique coaches, cars, and saddles, as well as a collection of ranch-life photographs from 1939-1940. Built in 1907, the factory supplied ice for railroad cars (sometimes as many as 300 cars a day) carrying fruits and vegetables from the Rio Grande Valley. The building, which also generated Kingsville’s electricity for many years, closed in 1958 and remained vacant until 1969, when the King Ranch acquired it and had it remodeled.

An icehouse in Albany—built in 1927 by West Texas Utilities on a rail siding—now does business as a restaurant that serves Tex-Mex dishes and mesquite-grilled steaks. Sonona Teinert, who co-owns the Icehouse Restaurant with her daughter Melissa Williams and Melissa’s husband, Bobby, changed the building as little as possible. The area that housed the icemaking machinery is now a bar. The former “salt pit,” where the ice was made, is now the dining room, and the old vault, where the ice was stored, is now an office and a storage room.

In Wichita Falls, the vaults of the old People’s Ice Company echo with the sounds of music, laughter, and dramatic dialogue. Operated during the 1920s and 1930s by the Marcus family, the towering plant now houses two performance spaces for the community’s Backdoor Theatre. The theater group produces classy shows such as Man of La Mancha and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

At an icehouse-turned-pottery studio in Luling, a different kind of “show” also proves classy.

“We didn’t even know what an icehouse was until we bought one,” says Charley Pritchard, who, together with his wife, Holly, last year transplanted their career dreams from North Carolina to Texas. They’re converting the huge old ice plant in Luling (built by Corpus Christi-based Central Power and Light in 1927) into Luling Icehouse Pottery. In May, one of the couple’s kilns began cranking out pottery—beautifully formed pitchers, tumblers, bowls, and vases based on the Southern folk tradition—and their dreams have grown.

“We’ve got so much room here,” says Charley, “that one day we may add other artists’ studios and even start an art festival.” The once-bustling icehouse fits their craft in an “elemental” way, as Holly sees it. “Here, they once took water and used cold to make their product. Now, we’re taking earth and using heat to make ours,” she says. Even more fitting for a sizzling August day would be to swirl ice cubes and fresh-brewed tea in one of the Pritchards’ tall clay tumblers. What a way to beat summer’s heat! And how better to feel grateful for one of life’s most common lux-uries—clear, cold ice!

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From the August 2000 issue.

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