Last Sunday, I did what I do once or twice a summer, I bought a watermelon. What prompted me to buy one was that the store had the dark green ones like I remember from my youth. We used to get our melon from the Ice Plant in our town. They always had the best and coldest.
On hot summer Sunday afternoons, nothing beats ice-cold watermelon. My dad would drive my brother and me to town while my mom stayed home and got the kitchen table ready for the feast. I looked forward to going into the Ice Plant on a hot July day to pick out a 50-cent melon.
For the ride home, Dad would put the melon on the backseat. I loved to put my bare feet on that really cold dark green melon on the way home.
In the meantime, my mother had covered the kitchen table with several layers of newspapers. This was done to catch and soak up the melon juice. The melon was cut into wedges and passed around. I ate mine with a spoon as I carefully carved out tunnels through the wedge. I liked mine with salt.
After we finished, the rinds were thrown in the bushes at the edge of the yard (remember we lived in the country.) The newspapers were rolled up– juice, seeds and all– for a trip to the trash.
The Ice Plant where we bought the melon was an important part of the town at that time. Their natural ice came in blocks from northern lakes and rivers. It had been cut into large 10-, 25- and 50-lb. blocks and sent around the world by ship and rail. Home ice boxes were just that–an insulated, but not electrified box where a block of ice was placed to keep things relatively cool. I remember when there was a horse-drawn ice delivery wagon servicing homes that still had an ice box.
The transition from natural ice to manufactured ice took a long time. The first patent for an ice-making machine was granted to John Gorrie in 1851.
When I was a boy growing up, almost no one had a home freezer. If you had an electric refrigerator, there was a small freezer compartment that held an ice tray or two with little room for anything else. The first separate freezer compartments in refrigerators with space larger than two ice trays did not come along until 1940. The second World War followed soon after. Although few were sold, this welcomed convenience signaled the slow demise of the Ice Plant.
The Ice Plant also rented lockers for frozen food storage. In the summer if you had a garden you “put up” (Southern for preserving) mainly vegetables in Mason jars. In addition, people also froze what they could. The lockers were different sizes and were in a large walk-in freezer. When a person had chickens the right size for slaughter or had caught more fish than they could eat, they were stored frozen in the Ice Plant lockers. The same at hog-killing time in the fall. This was not long after WWII when a lot of people had had victory gardens and maybe a few backyard chickens.
As late as WWII, manufactured ice was still not readily available to those who could afford it. The first merchandiser of store-packaged ice at retail locations did not come along until 1952. So ice was not yet for sale at every service station and convenience store. If you needed more ice than you could make in the small freezer compartment of your new electric refrigerator, you still went to the Ice Plant, which eventually converted from natural ice storage to making ice. If we were going camping or fishing and needed it for a cooler, or if we were making homemade ice cream in a hand-cranked churn, lots of ice was essential.
Having never been dependent on ice for keeping food cool, I guess I have always taken it for granted. But now I put ice right up there with window screens and ice-cold dark green watermelons on hot summer Sundays on my list of “How did people live without…”
Bill Minus lives in Chestertown and can be seen wandering Kent County regularly.