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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

THE COOLERATOR

by C. F. Eckhardt
There are some things about the 'good old days' that it's better to forget. One of those is the coolerator.

So what is-or was-a coolerator?

To understand a coolerator and the need for it you have to go back to a time before the REA got to rural Texas. There was no electricity anywhere, and if you lived forty miles or so from town, having an icebox wasn't an option, particularly in the summertime in the drier parts of Texas. You might load up a hundred pounds of ice in the buckboard on Town Day-Saturday-and by the time you got home you might have twenty pounds left. Since ice cost money-this stuff might have been cut from a pond in Maine in the winter, shipped to Corpus Christi in early spring, stored in an icehouse until April, then moved in an insulated railroad car to the town nearest you and stored in an underground, insulated bunker until you bought it-you didn't waste it, and losing 80% of your ice between town and home was a waste.

Still, you needed some way to keep things like milk and butter cool. You could let 'em down the well in a bucket, but pulling up the bucket for every meal could get old. There needed to be a way to keep things in the house. Enter the coolerator.

Coolerators worked only in very dry country, and best in dry, windy country. Of course, that describes most of West Texas, so there's where you found 'em. A coolerator was a cabinet that looked a lot like an old-fashioned pie safe, but instead of having a wooden back and punched-tin sides and doors, the coolerator's back, sides, and doors were covered in fine-mesh screen wire. The top and bottom were solid, and the cabinet stood about a foot off the floor on spindly wooden legs. Each leg was immersed in a 1-lb coffee can half full of kerosene. This kept crawling or climbing insects out of the coolerator. The screenwire sides and doors kept out the fliers. Inside there were three or four shelves for perishable foods.

The important part of the coolerator was not the cabinet, but that which kept it cool. A large pan, usually sheet metal, was placed atop the coolerator and filled about half way with water. A woolen blanket was draped over the pan, to hang all the way to the bottom of the coolerator cabinet on all sides. Often this was two or three threadbare woolen blankets sewn together, which would be used on beds in the winter. Atop the blanket, to sink it into the water, there was a brick or large rock.

The woolen blanket wicked the water down on all sides of the coolerator, and the ever-present Texas wind, blowing through the blanket, cooled the food inside through evaporation. With the coolerator set on a shaded but mostly-open porch, milk, butter, eggs, and other perishables stayed remarkably cool during the hot spring, summer, or fall of the year. With the coming of REA and electricity to rural Texas, coolerators and their kin vanished, to be replaced by electric refrigeration. They were not greatly missed.


C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
>
August 21, 2006 column

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