Tom Dillard: Can’t imagine life without ice? Neither could early Arkansans

The recent heat wave reminded me to be grateful for many things, not the least being the availability of ice. For our ancestors, ice made possible everything from ice cream to mint juleps served in chilled silver cups.

I can recall as a lad being admitted briefly one hot August day to a large ice plant in Hot Springs; the temperature was well below freezing, and cold air swirled around 1,000-pound blocks of clear ice. Skilled employees could easily detach a 40-pound block to be taken home for making ice cream.

I do not know when the first ice plant came to Arkansas. Certainly, Arkansans enjoyed ice long before commercial ice-making became feasible. Ice harvested from northern lakes and rivers was brought into Arkansas by steamboat.

Hotel owners were among the first businesses to build ice houses to ensure a steady availability of ice. In the spring of 1840, Alexander George, prominent German immigrant and owner of a beer garden, advertised that he sold ice cream -- a sure sign he had an ice house.

The Stidham Hotel in Hot Springs advertised in 1852 "a well-filled ice house, a luxury heretofore unknown at this place." It must have been a chore to ship ice to Hot Springs in the days before the arrival of the railroad in 1876.

My favorite example of ice consumption on the frontier came from William Tallack, an 1860 English passenger on the Butterfield Stage Line. Writing in his journal after a "dusty drag of 15 miles in six hours," Tallack tells of reaching Fort Smith ("on the frontier of Arkansas and of civilization"). He found the local residents "holiday-keeping, in honour of 'the Fourth.'"

Tallack's words are worth quoting at length: "We were allowed two hours' delay -- a very welcome opportunity for a bath and a leisurely dinner at a regular hotel. There we emerged on the comforts of ice water and ice cream, both such universal requirements of loyal American citizens in summer."

The more or less regular steamboat service on the Arkansas River enabled a Fort Smith man to use a block of ice to cool down his prized hog, Tallack reported:

"Our landlord had a fat pig in readiness for some western agricultural exhibition and, in order to restrain any diminution of size by the copious perspiration in the sweltering weather, a large block of ice was placed on the recumbent animal; and the latter seemed very comfortable to appreciate the attention thus given to his personal condition."

Mrs. Mary E. Boddie, writing from her home in Ouachita County in July 1876, described a local July 4 celebration which included an extensive menu: "fine fish, barbecued meat, beef, muttons, shoats, were done to a turn, & the ladies boxes supplied the table."

She continued her description "with an abundance of everything good in the way of eatables, coffee & ice water to drink, with an occasional glass of ice lemonade, the latter a special treat from the gentlemen, as they purchased from Levy who had a tent erected near by for the purpose of vending lemonade & beer." This celebration was near Camden, a center of steamboat activity on the Ouachita River, which again probably explains the availability of ice.

During the Civil War, the ice houses in Little Rock went out of business once the northern blockade stopped ice shipments. Within weeks of the end of hostilities in April 1865, H.A. Stephens of Little Rock opened an ice house. The Arkansas Gazette eagerly promoted the new ice house and noted excellent sales to those who like "ice water and ice juleps." The reporter ended with "Bring on your [ice] barges and cool the fevered brow and parched tongue."

Little Rock was home to a commercial ice company by Aug. 20, 1879, when it advertised that a sample of ice four feet long, three feet wide, and 12 inches thick would be shipped "to any Fort Smith resident who will pay the freight."

The company predicted that "ice houses will be useless hereafter," meaning that daily railroad service to Fort Smith would provide a regular source of ice, and it would not be necessary to store the ice for long periods of time.

While many rural families had spring houses and water wells to keep food and milk cool, it appears that only a few could afford an ice house. The only ice house documented by the Arkansas Archeological Survey is at the Peel Mansion in Bentonville. In 2002, a team of archaeologists excavated an eight-foot by eight-foot brick structure at the home of prominent Bentonville lawyer and U.S. Rep. Samuel West Peel (1831-1924).

The ice house had brick walls 11.5 inches thick. A central space between each wall of three inches was filled with sawdust to serve as insulation. Archaeologists believe it is probably original to the construction of the Peel house in 1875.

Commercial ice production began in Bentonville around 1900, which meant local deliveries made the ice house obsolete. It suddenly became a coal storage area, then a general storage building, and finally a tool shed.

By 1900, most Arkansas towns had ice-making plants with home delivery becoming commonplace.

The increased availability of manufactured ice played a role in shipping peaches and other fruit and vegetables grown in Arkansas. Highland Peach Orchard near Nashville in the early 1900s was the largest peach orchard in the nation. During the summer of 1912, some 475 rail cars of peaches were shipped daily from that orchard, each one needing to be iced down to prevent spoilage.

In 1927, a commercial ice plant capable of producing 100 tons of ice daily opened near Nashville, prompting one historian to write "during the summer when there was a good peach crop, the day and night throbbing of the ice-making machinery would be heard for miles around, like the pulse-beat of the peach harvest."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]. An earlier version of this column was published Aug. 1, 2010.

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