Crinkling, crunching, shattering ice is what I still remember most from the storage room. As an adult, the beauty of the glacially-blue blocks of ice stuns me, but as a child, the sound of walking on white frost and broken chips of ice was beyond cool. Everything else in the rest of my Mississippi world, the mud, grass and pine straw, was a soft, muffled quiet under my feet no matter how hard I stomped. But in the ice room I became a giant from another world, from the moon or Mars or an undiscovered galaxy, a ferocious monster capable of huffs and puffs and heaving ho. Contrary to my mighty feet, my squeals and screams were stopped in mid-air by the thickly insulated walls and dense blocks of ice. This altered transformation was fantastic. It was freezing. It was short-lived when my uncle shooed me out of the workers’ way and pulled me back into the normal life of trees, sun and sky. Hebron was generous with me and the gaggle of cousins underfoot, imparting his father’s, and his father’s father’s passion for a business that impacted their region of America as deeply and creatively as it impacted four generations of the Morris family.
ICE AND IRON
The block ice era was one of craftsmanship and cunning, when machinery was big, tangible, logical and inventive, not to mention beautiful and fluid in its practical design. For those with a penchant for metal, the intrinsic artistic appeal of the machinery is wonderful to behold just for the sake of beauty. In our modern “IT” age of brilliantly fast transference of knowledge, information and communication, compacted into tiny, tinier and micro tiny chips, cells and pods, the inner workings of an old block ice plant can be a fascinating glimpse into the classic era of might and muscle. Look inside a modern freezer and think about transforming it into a space large enough for an entire crew of people to wander around in, work on things, check the ice, move it around, sell it, and start all over again. What now takes up less than a cubic foot of space in the kitchen used to take up several stories and fill up 30,000 square feet of floor space in an old ice factory.
To take the ice inside, [the ice deliveryman] had to load the ice into a canvas bag with a metal handle, hoist it onto his back, and carry it into the home, sometimes having to hike up stairs to a second- or third-floor apartment. Most homes had no locks on the doors so he’d go right in and take his melting cargo to the kitchen where, supposedly, all he had to do was put the block in the box. More likely than not, he had to do a lot of rearranging of condiment jars, fruits, meat and vegetables to make a space for the new block, no matter if the box had a “separate” compartment just for the ice. Once he made space for the new block of ice, he had to attempt to escape from the housewife who was always trying to take advantage of the able-bodied iceman. She would implore him to move a big chair or something else too heavy for her to maneuver, and she might need him to take out the trash for her. Or, she might be a good cook, so the iceman would intentionally linger around, waiting to enjoy his home-cooked breakfast at that stop.
By the time World War I hit, the ice business was so important a man could be excused from war duty if he worked in an ice plant. Ice production didn’t slow down once “The War” was over. Soldiers brought back tales of the varied customs they experienced during their deployment, which instigated new desires on the part of the American public. They wanted to go out to eat at restaurants instead of having home-cooked meals. Driving luxurious automobiles became a popular pastime. Both men and women wanted to be seen sashaying around in fancy clothing. Each of these desires increased the demand for manufactured ice. Restaurants needed it for food preservation and to serve iced cold drinks. Ice was used in concrete mixtures for new roads. The textile industry relied on block ice to control the temperature in their dye vats. All kinds of industrial development increased after the war and all of it, whether directly in making the product or just in supplying office workers with cold drinks, fed into the ice business.