Peggy Keener: The frigid history of ice

Published 5:42 pm Friday, July 21, 2023

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Author’s note: I regret telling you that the 3rd Part of “Out of Darkness, A Light,” mysteriously vanished into such deep impenetrable cyberspace that I cannot retrieve it. But, I will tell you that the story ended when that young blind student developed a reading method for the blind, the world over, that would bring them out of their life of darkness. The young man was Louis Braille.

Minnesotans don’t usually start thinking about ice until about November. So, why wait? Why not get a jump on it and think about it now? Actually, don’t conjure up just any old ice, mind you. Instead go big. Real big. How about the history of ice! But, then, who even knew that ice had a history? And try putting that question to an Eskimo!

The latest Saturday Evening Post had an article on Frederic Tudor, the man who brought iced beverages to the world. It’s like this. Up until a couple hundred years ago, ice was simply a winter covering on ponds, lakes and even oceans. Frederic Tudor looked at that hard frigid crust, however, and saw something different. What he saw was cold drinks. You see, he’s the one who introduced ice to beverages, cooling off people’s drinks while at the same time introducing them to a new craving they never even knew they had.

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It began like this. One day in 1805, two wealthy brothers from Boston were at a family picnic. They were enjoying the unusual experience of guzzling down cold drinks and ice cream, rare treats that only the extremely rich could afford. The brothers joked about how their chilled refreshments would be the envy of all the colonists who were at that very moment sweating it out in the West Indies.

What would prove to be a passing remark made by one brother, though, stuck in the mind of the other brother, Frederic. It goes without saying that it would take a concerted effort, money and certainly time, but thirty years later, Frederic would ship nearly 12,000 tons of ice halfway around the globe. In time, such feats brought him the well deserved name of “Ice King”.

Frederic had been handed a pedigree with an envious pathway straight into Harvard, but quashed that chance when he dropped out of school at age 13. Loafing around the family estate—hunting, fishing and playing at farming—he couldn’t get that notion of ice out of his mind. After all, he had little else to occupy his thinking.

In the following six months, Frederic convinced his brother, William, to pool their money together and make plans for shipping ice to the French Island of Martinique. His reasoning was that once folks tried ice, they’d never want to go without it.

One major problem confronted them, however. No ship in Boston would agree to transport such an unusual cargo. So, what did Frederic do? He spent nearly $5,000 to buy a ship of his own. (Dare I ask you to convert that into today’s currency, nearly 218 years later?)

But, things did not go as planned. The ice arrived in perfect condition, but, alas, the islanders wouldn’t buy it. Even though Tudor explained how it would give them relief from the sweltering weather, they weren’t convinced. Hence, a disgruntled William pulled out of the partnership.

All alone, it took nearly five more years of disappointment before Frederic’s business turned a profit. It was, albeit, not for long. Between a disastrous series of circumstances—including war, weather and relatives demanding pay back money—he couldn’t get ahead. Between 1809 and 1813, a beaten down Frederic landed in debtor’s prison three times. The rest was spent hiding from the sheriff.

Still, Frederic was obsessed with his icy idea. He knew it could make him a rich man. Thus, during the next decade he developed clever ways to introduce ice cold drinks to the public. He started with the boarding house where he lived, but his fellow boarders scoffed at such an idea. Scoffed, that is, until they fell in love with the refreshing drinks.

Then Frederic began traveling around the country convincing barkeeps to offer chilled drinks for the same price as regular drinks. It didn’t take much convincing. Next he taught restaurants how to make ice cream, and then trained doctors and nurses to use ice to cool down feverish patients. It wasn’t long before a whole group of people felt they could no longer live without ice.

By now it was clear that Frederic’s operation needed to be refined. Enter Nathaniel Wyeth, an inventor. In 1826, he began using horse-drawn plows to cut lake ice into large grids. Laborers then sawed the blocks apart and plopped them into canals where they floated downstream. Next a conveyor belt hoisted the blocks from the water and carried them to ice houses. There they were piled in stacks up to 80 feet tall.

To be sure the operation was incredibly dangerous. Towering heaps of slippery ice, numb hands, sharp instruments and frigid waters made the workers’ efforts unreasonably hazardous. In addition, the three-hundred pound blocks knocked them over, breaking their limbs. The workers also developed “ice man’s knees,” which remained bruised and bloodied from days of shoving solid ice. Still, as perilous as the job then was, it was a major improvement over the previous methods.

By 1822, Tudor’s reputation was beginning to solidify when he shipped 180 tons of ice halfway across the globe to the British colonists in Calcutta.

The venture was so successful, it reopened trade routes between India and Boston. Within the next 25 years, nearly 52,000 tons of ice traveled by ship or train to cities across America.

Frederic Tudor died in 1864, a very rich man. By then, everyone with access to a frozen body of water was in on the action. Farmers, especially, could find work during the frozen winters. Even during the Civil War, when the South was cut off from the frigid North, the ice industry continued to grow.

As Americans became more accustomed to fresh meats, milk and fruit, the ice industry expanded into one of the most powerful industries in the nation. By the turn of the 20th Century, nearly every family, grocery and bar had an icebox.

Then in a twist of fate, America’s hunger for new technology nearly killed the ice trade. Electric refrigerators and freezers took over. By 1940, five million units were sold in the United States alone.

Today the ice industry earns $2.5 billion a year. This number, nonetheless, is far smaller than it was during its heyday. Now most of the business comes from pre-packaged ice …. the kind you put in your beer cooler.

As the Saturday Evening Post remarked, “The next hot day when you touch your lips to a slushie, an iced tea, a chilled martini or a cold beer, take a moment to thank the crazy persistent Yankee who had the vision of turning water into money.”

Still, it begs this question: what do you suppose Frederic Tudor would think of the debatable bottled water industry of today?