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Column: The Iceman Cometh

An iceman delivers to a Washington, D.C., school, sometime around 1900. (Library of Congress)

WORTHINGTON — Isn’t it crazy how some little thing will get you thinking about a topic?

I am referring to a fun conversation with a staff person at Crossroads Care Center where I live.

Somehow I mentioned to one of the aides about how long ago, we used to clean up the water under the ice box. If the drip pan was too full, it would overflow.

[Phong] said, “What are you talking about?”

I chuckled as I replied, “Oh, perhaps you have never heard of an ice box?”

“Yes, you mean put ice and your beverages or food into a cooler. Is that what you mean?”

I laughed as I said, “Oh no, you are too young to know or even to remember.”

Back in the day, ice was harvested from ponds and lakes, and large blocks (known as cakes) of ice were stored in ice houses and then driven to town. The tools of the iceman were wires (to tie the bags of cubes), hooks, tongs and ice picks. Being an iceman was back-breaking. The icemen usually began their day at 4 a.m. and finished late in the evening, depending on both the season and day of the week. Many icemen worked seven days a week and through holidays.

The icemen had leather vests and a wet piece of sackcloth slung over the right shoulder, and once they had slid the ice into the box, they invariably slipped the sacking off and stood there dripping and waiting for their money. The occupation of ice delivery lives on through Amish communities, where ice is commonly delivered by truck and used to cool food and other perishables.

Ice boxes were oak cabinets, with two doors. One for the ice, lined with  tin. The iceman who delivered the ice would have to come into your house and measure what size of ice chunk to fit your ice box. The other door opened to shelves for your food.

[Phong] was very puzzled, interested, and had a hard time believing such a story. I was having fun explaining how we kept food fresh in the first “refrigerators.” Phong listened with great interest. “What do you mean by cleaning up the floor?”

I went on to tell him about the drip pan under the ice box. There was a  pipe from the ice compartment down to the pan. So as the ice melted, it would fill the large pan underneath.

“Well,” I said, “Everyone loved the iceman with his big flatbed hitched to a team of horses. On the flatbed were enormous chunks of ice. The iceman would throw his big ice hooks up onto one of the blocks, pull it to the end of the flatbed. There he would chip and lift out the right size with a big ice tongs and place it in your ice box.

“We kids were allowed to pick up the chips of ice from the edge of the flatbed. We loved the cool ice as our treat on a hot summer day. Then we could follow the iceman down the alley. This was great fun especially in the terribly hot summer of  1936”.

“Wow,” said Phong, “I’ve really learned a lot.

This winter when you drive by frozen over Lake Okabena, give a sentimental wave to the iceman!