The Early Ice Trade in Memphis: John’s Uncommon Denominators

Cold Comfort in 1860

The early ice trade in Memphis

By John Matthews

Summer is officially here. “Remind me, why in the hell do I continue to live in this heat?” During the Memphis summer heat, who among us has not pressed an icy glass of tea or lemonade to our face and neck and muttered such a thing?

Memphis summers in the 1860’s were no less hot and steamy than they are today. Then, as now, one of the more popular ways to beat the summer heat was to enjoy a cold refreshing beverage that was poured over a liberal amount of ice.

For the better part of two centuries the use of ice has become no less than a means of survival in the unforgiving sultry Memphis summers. 

Ice Harvest (F. Ray, Harper’s Weekly, 30 August, 1884).

And yet, the world’s first commercial ice plant wasn’t built until 1868, years later in New Orleans, so where was this ice coming from?

Well as it turns out, Mother Nature has been making ice the natural way for quite some time. What may be surprising is the efforts and enterprise that was extended in processing, transporting and the long term storing of the simple commodity of frozen water.

At first glance it seems highly improbable if not downright impossible that ice harvested from a Midwestern lake in January could be delivered in Memphis on a 98-degree day the following August. But that is exactly what was done. 

The ice trade was a burgeoning business in the American Midwest and Northeast and had grown in dramatic fashion since 1820 when a Bostonian entrepreneur proved that properly insulated block ice could be delivered in the cargo hold of ships to destinations as far away as India.

Huse Lake Ice Harvest (F. Ray, Harper’s Weekly, 30 August, 1884).

Bohlen & Wilson ad from an 1860 issue of the Memphis Appeal.

In a similar fashion ice that was harvested from frozen lakes several hundred miles north of Memphis was brought into inventory in local ice houses for storage. Most of the local ice was harvested from Huse Lake outside of Peru, Illinois, barged down the Illinois river and transferred to riverboats that moved the chilled cargo down the Mississippi River. These 300 lb. blocks were then packed tightly into partially subterranean warehouses that were double planked on the outside and insulated throughout with sawdust, cotton, hay, cork and other barriers that maintained the frozen delight for months into the future. 

The largest ice distributor in Memphis – Bohlen, Wilson & Co. – maintained 3 such ice houses and offered daily wholesale deliveries to hotels, restaurants and saloons while also performing residential delivery by mule drawn wagons.  Residential customers would place a card in the window which denoted the required amount of ice (normally 25, 50, 75 or 100 pounds) and the “iceman” would chisel the order from a larger block and make the delivery utilizing large iron tongs to clasp the slippery product. Neighborhood children chased these wagons hoping to get a handful of residual frozen delicacy from the iceman.

The pervasive use of ice in everyday life caused an explosion of other industries. Being able to now have temperate rail transport, the beef and pork industries grew exponentially as their markets expanded for hundreds of additional miles from the slaughterhouses in Chicago, Cincinnati, Kansas City and the like. Produce farms were also able to reap such marginal efficiencies as their markets grew and since consumers were able to purchase more since they could, due to the numbers of home “iceboxes,” store product much longer. Memphis was so flush with ice in 1860 that yearly receipts showed 19,600 tons of the frozen stuff translated to a pre-melt usage of 1,700 annual pounds for every Memphian, man, woman and child!

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The entertainment industry was also quick to incorporate the benefits of ice into their operations. Enterprising theater owners would purchase ice blocks and store them in the basement prior to a performance. Using a clever system of fans that blew the cooled air up thought vents cut in the floors, patrons could be made more comfortable and thereby performances tended to attract more customers during the warmer times of the year. The more customers, the more ice blocks were required to break up and feed to the system of fans. 

As a Storyboard Memphis reader bonus:  this is the derivation of the term “Blockbuster.” 

By the end of the nineteenth century and the common availability of electricity, commercial refrigeration and freezing was to become a vital part of the growing American economy.  But what we take for granted today was once the product of an incredible labor intensive system and extremely long supply chain operated by those with an entrepreneurial bent that built our city and our country. 

The humble ice cube…it has a pretty cool history when you think about it.

Adapted from John Matthews’ collection of essays:  WHITE GOLD, YELLOW FEVER AND RED HOT BLUES, Uncommon Denominators of America’s Coolest City.

Sponsored by Captain & Co. Real Estate, LLC for their “Memphis Mondays” series. Look for Captain & Co.’s Memphis every Monday.

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