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a native Texan and master storyteller, is folklorist for the Institute of Texan Cultures at the University of Texas at San Antonio and longtime member and former president of the Texas Folklore Society. He has taught folklore at Indiana University and Southwest Texas State University, has been a member of the Texas Folklore Society for 25 years and was President of the Texas Folklore Society in 2005. Rhett, whose grandfather delivered ice for a living, talked to us about the history of the icehouses in San Antonio and the place they hold in Texas culture.


TheIce Harvest - Chainsaws and Sawdust

In the late 1800s, all ice was harvested from northern lakes and rivers and was covered in sawdust and stored in barns as long as it would last.  In those days only the very rich and the very elite would have ice as it was such a process to get it to Texas.  Ice harvesting involved eight to ten-foot saws that people would take out on frozen ponds in Wisconsin and Minnesota as well as all through New England.  Basically wherever there was thick ice there was ice harvesting, and it was a major industry.  The whole family would go out and saw the ice up into cubes or rectangular blocks.  Then it would be loaded on a sleigh and hauled to a railhead.  The railhead would either take it to people who could use it or take it to a port and pack it in sawdust and load it on the ship—a fast ship—that would haul it as far south basically as possible.  Sometimes they made it to Savannah.  Sometimes they made it all the way to New Orleans. Sometimes they even made it to Galveston before it was gone. It was a risky business; loading a big ship full of something that could be gone when you go there.  The Captain had to be confident.


A Cool Idea
Ice Manufacturing in Texas

Eventually importing ice from the north stopped because domestic production of artificial ice started in Texas. During the Civil War the first machine to make ice was snuck through the federal blockade and it was assembled, established and soon operated in San Antonio. That was the first ice machine in Texas, the second in the United States. The ice machine was an enormous turning point.  It was cool idea—no pun intended—it was such a great idea that others started buying machines, duplicating machines, inventing their own, and improving on it. Soon San Antonio, and I don’t know why San Antonio, maybe because it was always considered the heart of Texas.  It’s always been everybody in Texas’ sweetheart. San Antonio became a valuable hub because all these ice plants started coming up. 

There was a man named Richard King who had the largest ranch in the world, the King Ranch down in South Texas, which covers most of South Texas.  He had a “gabillion” cows and the idea of refrigeration appealed to him. It was a way to make a lot of money. Before refrigeration, killing the cattle in South Texas and shipping them anywhere was not possible because they would rot before they got there. The creation of the cattle drive came from the need to get the cattle to a railroad. Oftentimes the nearest railroad place was in Kansas, so one had to drive the cattle up there.  Thus, we get the whole cowboy mythology and iconography of the cowboys and the cattle drive because we didn’t have refrigeration.  So, Richard King,  a savvy rancher, invested heavily in ice plants. Indeed, some of the next generation if ice manufacturing took place down on his property on the King Ranch. 


An abandoned ice depot in San Antonio

Sanchez Ice House regulars

A Serious Social Hub

Now that Texas had ice it also had ice houses. They started off being where cut ice was stored. Their storage facility was heavily insulated. They would pack sawdust and whatever they thought would be a great insulator and they would pack it in. They would have walls that were sometimes three and four feet thick, they would pack this in, and they’d cut their ice—they’d manufacture it and cut it and stack it. Since it was cold, other businesses in San Antonio got idea, “Well, hey, if you have this cold place, what would you charge me to store my milk here, my cheese here, my meat here?” Oh, we’re starting to get the idea down. They even gave tours to the local elite. “It’s a hundred degrees outside, you want to chill out? Come hang out.” They would do lunches in the ice room and they would build a table out of ice blocks and the local social elite would come and have their lunch sitting on ice blocks.

Ice houses became community centers as well.  They were the draws for the community.
The ice house was the thing simply because if you put your bench up against the wall of the ice house, it was still five or six degrees cooler than the ambient temperature outside. If you lived far away, you’d make a point of coming in on a Friday or Saturday to the ice house. But, if you lived remotely close you’d try to make it every afternoon or evening when work was done. It was so common that other businesses knew—entrepreneurs knew—all the locals are going to be here at four thirty or five o’clock or close to sundown on a Friday or Saturday. We have a joke about lawyers setting their offices up next to the ice house, but that’s what it was like. If you wanted to do business, you’d be there to. If you needed public business or public exposure, you would set up right there.

If you couldn’t negotiate with the family that owned the ice house, then you would build next to them, or buy next to them or nearby.  Downtown Bandera is a testament to this sort of development. It was ice houses and bars and they realized, “Oh, gee, people are coming to do this, so let’s have some restaurants, and, perhaps, when they come in on Saturday they might want to buy some clothes or jeans or new boots or whatever.” So, it expanded. That’s downtown Bandera, that’s how it worked and it’s not the only town in Texas that did it that way, either.

Some people would come to see the novelty of the ice, but if they didn’t have a way of using that ice, they wouldn’t come back frequently.  That was another reason for the expansion around ice houses; to keep the people coming back. So, you’ve got things like soda fountains and drug stores. You got things like beer joints.

So, that was the beginning of the ice house.  It was a place where ice could be stored in smaller quantities because a lot of the manufacturing plants were manufacturing for other commercial interests. Ice houses were a storage facility that developed a retail/commercial aspect.  Then the local geniuses figured out that they could store their beer there, chill other things there. The social organizations like the Knights of Columbus, the Sons of Hermann, the Masons, the Shriner’s would have their own sort of mini-ice houses.  Or, at least rooms in their facilities where they would go and buy the large blocks of ice and bring them back and they would chill their beer.  So, it was like a mini-ice house.  Prior to 1955, it was clear that ice had changed Texas and that the ice house was a social hub.  It was a serious social hub.

How to Spot an Ice House Today - Connotation and Evocation

ice house
Ice house today is a connotation. It’s evocative of a memory.  It’s evocative of the “Grandpa used to go and drink a cold beer and play dominoes” at the ice house.
People today have never experienced a real ice house.  But, if somebody builds a little pub, which is a box-beer joint with no outside at all, they can still put the name ice house on it and hopefully evoke that sort of feeling and draw people in.  But, an ice house is easy to spot.  In Texas, you look for horse shoe pits, outside. You look for domino tables that are worn slick and they have a little quarter-inch lip around the edge of the table so the dominoes don’t slide off. 
  But, an ice house is easy to spot.  In Texas, you look for horse shoe pits, outside.  You look for domino tables that are worn slick and they have a little quarter-inch lip around the edge of the table so the dominoes don’t slide off. You can spot an ice house by the sawdust. Sawdust should be everywhere. Even though they don’t store blocks of ice in sawdust any more, you can still see the sawdust evident on the tables or the dance floor.  You can look at the crowd.  You can look at the floor itself.  What’s the floor made of? Is it a linoleum thing? No, no.  Are the boards warped from having a thousand beers spilled on them over the last 100 years?  You know?  They’re just clues.  There’s smells.  What’s the parking lot made out of?  Is it asphalt or is it crushed shell in south east Texas? Is it asphalt or is it crushed shell in south east Texas? If there are not 47 billion bottle caps that have been run over by 47 and a half billion pickup trucks, then you’re in the wrong place. You’re just barking up the wrong tree.  You’re in some yuppie fern bar.  You know?  You missed it.
Rhett Rushing/ 2006

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