In the early 1930s, six ice plants were operating in Gadsden. But with progress in refrigeration, all have gone by the wayside. When he was young, The Vagabond worked several summers at one of America’s early industries.
Ice is one of the oldest methods of refrigeration. The Chinese cut and stored it as long ago as 1000 BC. In the northern parts of the United States, natural ice once was harvested from streams and lakes. These blocks were placed in ice houses that were insulated with sawdust.
In 1870, refrigeration machines were built and the first artificial ice plant was set up at New Orleans. Then the move was on to build ice plants across the country.
Gadsden’s first ice plant, the Gadsden Ice Company, was built in 1887 on Town Creek near North Third Street. For those who still remember where the old Etowah County Jail was, the plant’s location was just north and on the same side of the street.
The late Will I. Martin, a local historian of earlier years, recalled the plant as being a two story frame building. It had a capacity of 12 tons a day, although it was usually four tons, quite sufficient for the needs of a small town during that time.
This plant did well for many years until the machinery and equipment became obsolete and the plant was abandoned. Up to the time it started, Gadsden received its ice from the Great Lake regions in the North in sawdust-insulated railroad cars.
In the early 1890s, a replacement for this plant was built and was known as the Gadsden Ice and Cold Storage Company. Its location was on the Southern Railway near Henry Street Large tanks of beer were received from Milwaukee and were bottled here.
By the early 1930s, there were at least six ice plants located in the city, including Crossfield’s, Price’s, Crystal’s and Ellis Ice and Coal Company. The Vagabond worked at what was once called Price’s and later Wayne’s Poultry Ice Plant.
Crossfield’s opened in 1916, and for many years was the first and only tube ice plant in the state. Plant owner Louis Crossfield who owned the plant, entered the ice business when Forrest Avenue wasn’t paved and delivered the first load of ice by truck in the city.
Price’s ice plant, on First Ave. was being leased by the Wayne Poultry Company of Albertville. Trucks leave nearly every day carrying tons of ice to be used for processing at the Albertville plant.
Not only did the plant served the company’s use, but also of others. Ice was sold to contractors, who built a big dam near Lineville, to the old Republic Steel which used the ice to cool drinking water and machinery, as well as to other poultry companies and the general public.
How is ice made? It is very simple and basically remains unchanged since the days of the first ice plant.
In the beginning, large canisters are filled with city water and placed in a huge tank. These tanks contain brine, a mixture of salt and chromemate, which allows the water to fall below the freezing mark to around 8 degrees Farenheit.
After taking around 36 hours to freeze, the canisters of frozen ice are lifted on a hoist and dumped. These 300-pound blocks are now scored into smaller blocks and immediately taken into the storage room. From there the blocks await the next truck or are taken into a crusher room to be crushed and sold to the pu-blic.
When ice is crushed. it is put into what is called a sizer. It is separated into lumps, tea size, snow or a mixture of all sizes together.
Ice is a seasonal trade, with winter being the slowest time period. Around eight men operate during this time, but over 25 men are hired for the busy summer.
On a regular shift, a wor-ker might pull ice up front, check and oil the machinery or wait on customers at the platform.
The Fourth of July and Labor Day weekend are the busiest days of the year. Customers will be backed up and down First Avenue. A lot of ice is sold on the weekends, during car races, or even on a very hot day.
Hatton Hughes, who was manager of the ice plant during those days, said that manufacturing and selling of ice used to be the best business in the world. Hughes came from Mississippi during the days of the depression. Back then it was just about the only business you could stick your hand out and get paid on the spot. Hughes believed back then that there were few ice plants at that time due to the early introduction of the modern electric refrigerator.
In the golden days of ice, this product was delivered to homes. Many kids came joyfully running out of the house at the first sound of the iceman’s bell to get a small chunk of ice. Today the iceman no longer delivers, but rather his customers come to him.