Precious Commodities: Ice

By Randy Townzen

Some of my happiest summertime memories are of Independence Day celebrations with fireworks, ice cold watermelon and home made ice cream.  With todays many choices and conveniences, it is hard to relate how special those simple things were on a hot summer day long ago.  There was one thing that made them possible, and that one thing, so easily taken for granted today, was once a precious commodity.....ice. 

The science behind making ice is simple, but the machinery, equipment and power needed to run them is much more complicated.  Bentonville boasted an Ice Plant or Ice House in the same location since before 1903.  The first one was a wood frame cold storage that ironically burned to the ground.  A new facility was built in the early twenties, this time of brick, insulated with 4" cork on each side of its interior walls, and each storage room plastered and painted reflective silver.  Ice was produced in 300 pound "cans", surrounded by super cold brine salt water.  The brine was cooled by circulating ammonia, pumped with a huge four cylinder compressor run by natural gas.  The compressor was so big and ran so hot, a separate water system was run through cooling towers then circulated around the running machine to keep it from over heating.  These cooling towers were the most recognizable feature of any Ice Plant. The compressor also ran a generator to produce electricity for the whole plant, providing power for lights and pumps.  To make the ice crystal clear, air was pumped into the freezing water using tubes deep in the cans.  Once frozen, the 300 pound blocks were hoisted out of the cans with a hand crank, then tipped upright and pushed into the freezer.  From there, the blocks were pushed through a scoring machine which marked them into 100 and 50 pound sections, then loaded on the wagon for delivery.  All this was done by hand with ice tongs on a slippery frozen floor. 

Before 1930, ice was delivered by horse and wagon.  The Bentonville Ice and Cold Storage had two wagons and two horses for delivery around town.  The plant produced 120 blocks of 300 pound ice per day, using 3 shifts of workers, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  The sound of the compressor was a constant thump, thump, thump, and when it shut down for maintenance, the "quiet was deafening".  By 1940, ice was being delivered around the county, so 3/4 ton Chevrolet flatbed trucks were needed.  Each truck carried eight 300 pound blocks, ready to break into whatever size the customer needed.  A good delivery man could break a 50 pound block perfectly in half with one blow of the ice pick.  These weren't refrigerated trucks, but the ice was covered with thick, insulated canvas blankets.  Businesses and restaurants needed ice, and most homes around town had an "ice box" to keep perishables fresher.  At each customer, a square black and white card would show the amount of ice needed for that day...25, 50, 75 or 100 pounds. Though rural delivery wasn't practical, the mercantiles and small stores in smaller communities had large ice boxes to store and sell ice to rural families.  Ice was a treat, and it was common for kids to follow the ice wagon for chips of ice.

The compressed ammonia was circulated around the storage rooms of the Ice House to keep them cool.  The cool storage rooms were ideal for produce and during World War II, the Ice House stored potatoes and eggs for shipment to troops.  The railroad ran just behind the plant where it had loading docks for convenient shipping.  There were no thermostats in the storage rooms, just thermometers and valves to control the flow.  Sometimes the pipes would freeze and be covered with ice, or ammonia might leak to be smelled by the neighbors.  Ventilation was controlled by opening doors and portable fans.  Originally owned by the King family, the Ice House was sold to the Ward family, famous for their ice cream.  They also produced and sold a very good ice box.

You could come to the Ice House and pick up your own ice.  In the early days of automobiles, the back bumper had a space just perfect for a 25 pound block of ice, but on hot days with a hot bumper you had to make a quick trip back home.  By the 1950's, crushed ice was popular and began being produced and delivered.  It was crushed right on the dock while you waited, packed in a heavy paper bag, not plastic.  I remember my dad putting t-towels in the floor board of our car to help keep it from melting.  With 5 kids and dirty shoes in and out of that car, I'm sure it helped keep the ice clean too.  It is these cold, crystal clear chunks I remember best in a galvanized tub of watermelons and the wooden bucket of an ice cream churn.  On those hot 4th of July Holidays, cars would be lined up down the block waiting for that needed cold bag of ice. 

After World War II, rural electric service brought power to the farms and home refrigerators became affordable for most every family.  The "ice Box" wasn't needed any more.  The Bentonville Ice and Cold Storage continued to provide cold storage for a while into the 1970's, but when the agriculture and transportation industries changed, it couldn't survive.  The building is still there on southeast 5th, having been used as storage, rental space and a restaurant.  It has been renovated and now used as office space and a future bakery.  It may not be beautiful, but it has deep roots in Bentonville history.

This story didn't come from books or on the internet.  It came from memory and the stories of Carl Mayhall, who's father worked at the Ice House from the 1930's until 1949.  This is just a small part of the stories he related about Bentonville History which I hope to share.  Such information is disappearing every day.  The Bentonville History Museum hopes you will help us save our past by sharing your photos, artifacts, stories and oral histories with us.