The ice man helped us to keep our cool

New technology eventually eliminated the icebox in the mid-1940s.—SUBMITTED PHOTO

In spite of the successes many of us enjoy, as evidenced by the upscale neighborhoods in which we live, we still return to our old neighborhoods for some services. At least five services cause us to still visit in our old neighborhoods: churches, barber shops, beauty salons, soul food restaurants and funeral homes.

You can live in Dresher, Blue Bell, Rydal, Villanova, Huntingdon Valley or some upscale enclave in South Jersey, but the funeral home that handles your remains will in all likelihood be in or near your old neighborhood. I was reminded of this last week when I returned to my old stomping grounds to attend homegoing services for Paul Terry, whose family owned the Terry Funeral Home for many years. Paul grew up at 42nd and Haverford Avenue, living above the funeral home. I grew up at 43rd and Haverford and attended elementary, junior high and high school with Paul. We played together in the same streets and shared many memorable events in our “down the way” neighborhood.

As I rode to Mount Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church at 42nd and Wallace streets, where Paul Terry’s service was held,, I spoke of fond memories of my old neighborhood. I recalled the families on my block — the Dickersons, Manleys, Kelseys, Slades, Coons, Prices and Pooles. Even though there are many vacant lots and dilapidated buildings in the old neighborhood, I was still able to identify the location of many Black businesses of the past: Brown’s Variety Store; Trawick Bakery; Brown’s Barber Shop and the “Colored Grocery Store,” as it was called. I could not ignore the locations where we played half-ball, marbles, baby in the air, hot bread and butter, kick the can and butter and blind man’s buff; and where the girls jumped double-dutch. These unforgettable memories resurfaced because of Paul’s death. It is unfortunate that it took the death of a friend to take me back to those wonderful memories that will forever remain with me. As I left the church and walked across the street, I could not miss the building on the corner. The Beach Ice House, which stood at this location during my early childhood days, still stands as a reminder of what life used to be in our neighborhood. This ice house resurrected another memory that will not go away. So, I ask you, what are your memories of the ice house and the iceman, back in the day?

Visualize life on a warm day in the neighborhood. While parents and perhaps ten siblings may have lived in a row home with two bedrooms, we were as happy and united as a family could be. We did not have refrigerators or air conditioning; ice played a major role in making our lives comfortable. If you grew up bin the fifties, I know you took trips to the ice house to purchase ice. Those much younger than I am may question how little boys carried big blocks of ice from the ice house to their homes. Most of us traveled back and forth with our wagons. Many of you have forgotten about that four-wheeled toy that was used for play and carrying out chores. Did you have a Red Ryder, with a red fence-type railing? Or, was the wagon you used for delivering papers used for other tasks such as transporting ice? For the ten or 15 cents given to you by your mother or father, you could get a block or a half-block of ice. How many of you remember traveling by wagon to the park with ice that was necessary for your family outing? Wagon trips to the ice house did not occur on a regular basis, as families that required ice relied mainly on the iceman who traveled by horse and buggy or later by truck, back in the day.

A much younger colleague, hearing me talk about the delivery of ice to homes, asked what people did with that ice. A question like this makes people from my generation realize how much times have changed. Many of you had an icebox in your kitchen to keep foods cold. The icebox was the precursor to the refrigerator and quite often was the size of a refrigerator. I can still see this large wooden box, made of oak or walnut with multiple hinged doors. The ice block was kept in a separate compartment t lined with tin, zinc, cork or straw. I suspect you remember helping your mother empty the drip pan at the bottom where the water accumulated as the ice melted. Some of you are probably wondering how items were kept cold prior to the icebox. Before any of us were around, food was kept in caves packed with snow or ice — in some cases in streams and in underground cellars lined with straw.

I also remember the delivery of milk and bread to homes. It was a regular occurrence for horse-drawn carriages and later trucks to travel through neighborhoods with the iceman delivering blocks of ice. He used tongs to grab a small block of ice, usually carried over his shoulder, covered by a leather sheath or a burlap sack. Large tarps covered the ice to shield it from the sun. Children would follow the iceman, trying to get some small pieces of ice to satisfy their thirst. The ice was not left at the front door; it was taken directly inside and placed into the icebox. As a collector of many things, I have a pair of these old tongs hanging above my fireplace. I also have an ice pick which was needed to break the ice. It is a reminder of how life was in the past. New technology eventually eliminated the icebox in the mid-1940s. I can still see our first refrigerator, with a large round motor and compressor on top. I did not realize that my family was fortunate as, unlike some, we did not have to put money in a coin box on the side of our new refrigerator to pay for it. It would cut off the electricity to the refrigerator if money was not placed in the coin box as agreed. I still refer to my refrigerator as an icebox.

Now, here is an ice story I have not fabricated. You may have heard some variation of this with some question of its veracity. But believe me; it is true; I was a participant. When I was growing up on North 43rd Street, a neighbor said to me, “Lonnie, let me know if you see the iceman, because I need a block of ice for my icebox. Call me only if you see the white iceman. Do not call me if you see the colored iceman, because the white man’s ice is colder than the ice sold by the colored iceman.” No, I am not kidding you — this conversation actually happened.

Blocks of ice served an important role in making movie houses comfortable on a warm summer afternoon. The Leader theater I frequented as a child had large blocks of ice in large freezer-type compartments next to the movie screen. A large fan blew cool air through vents out into the audience. Some people used a modified version in their homes. There is someone reading this column who placed a block of ice in a tub with a fan directly behind it, an ideal way to provide relief from hot weather.

A block of ice was a critical ingredient when making an old-fashioned “snowball.” I can still see the man with his pushcart pushing a scraper over the ice to form the snowball. I suspect you are familiar with purchasing ice specifically to make ice cream. It would not surprise me if there are still some old-school folk who are still making homemade ice cream. They still have an old-fashioned ice cream maker that still works perfectly and produces ice cream like no other.

Today, I do not know of anyone who does not have a refrigerator, so the need for ice is not the same as in the past. Either families are using ice trays or they have refrigerators with built-in ice makers. Large quantities of ice are easily obtained from supermarkets or convenience stores. Some families use ice packs. For many of us, however, the manner in which we obtain ice today will never replace the warm memories associated with the ice house or the iceman from back in the day.

 

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.

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