grim determination, a normally peaceful, law-abiding man just having learned he’s
been wronged straps on his six-shooter aiming to make things right. Enter his
pleading wife, who with tears or threats or both prevails on her husband to put
the gun away and turn the figurative other cheek.
That’s a cliché Western
movie scene, but in my family, one time it really happened. The injustice that
nearly triggered an episode of Old West-style violence did not stem from the need
to avenge a killing, deal with a philanderer or handle a horse thief. On a hot
summer afternoon in the early 1900s, it had to do with ice.
in this real-life Western episode was my great-grandfather Adolph Wilke, a first-generation
Texan whose father immigrated to Fredericksburg
from Germany. It happened in Ballinger,
then a bustling West Texas town on the upper Colorado River.
As my granddad,
L.A. Wilke (1897-1984) told the story, for a time his father made his living operating
an ice wagon. He got his sawdust-packed ice wholesale via train from Austin
or San Antonio. After loading the
standard 40-pound slabs into his wagon, he cut them into 12.5-pound or 25-pound
blocks and made his rounds selling them for five or ten cents a block.
cloudy with ammonia that stunk when it melted, ice was nevertheless a sure seller
in the days before electric refrigerators. In fact, the first self-contained electric
refrigerator did not hit the market in the U.S. until 1923.
Adolph’s customers placed a block of ice into wooden iceboxes that had pans beneath
them to collect the water as the ice slowly melted. Ice deliveries usually were
Although he peddled a popular product, Adolph did not enjoy a monopoly.
Another man, my granddad recalled his last name as Haley, also sold ice in Ballinger.
One day, the competitor pulled his team of horses up outside the depot
and picked up a shipment of ice intended for Adolph. Then he started selling it.
Learning of this, as my granddad later put it, “Papa put on his gun (a
.38 revolver) and was going to go to town” to discuss the matter with the other
At that point, my great-grandmother Mattie interceded and kept
her justly furious husband from settling the theft issue in the manner of the
late frontier. Granddad did not go into detail as to how his mother stopped his
father from leaving their house with his gun, but he said her action likely averted
In the end, neither my great-granddad Adolph nor his business
rival prevailed in the market. As Ballinger
continued to grow and the technology got cheaper, someone finally opened an ice
plant there and started their own delivery service.
Handy with a gun since
his earlier days as a cowboy, Adolph got a job as a Runnels County sheriff’s deputy.
He ran the jail, where he lived with his family.
miles down the railroad tracks from Ballinger
was San Angelo,
where my future grandmother, Viola Helen Anderson, lived with her family.
She remembered the excitement when the first ice factory opened in San
Angelo. Her father carried ice home with tongs. Their first icebox was just
that, she said, a box with sawdust in it. Later, they got a commercial wooden
“I thought we were the richest people in the world when we got
our first real icebox,” she recalled.
Ice distributors printed cards for
people to display outside their homes so deliverymen would know how much ice the
family needed. They would carry the ice on their back and take it straight to
“You better have everything out of the way when they came in,”
She and Granddad got married in 1916. They did not get their
first electric refrigerator until the mid-1920s, when they lived in Fort
Worth. Even then, she hadn’t wanted one, she said. She was satisfied with
the old icebox method.
remembered one funny incident indirectly concerning ice. In May 1910, when she
was 12, the family living next door came down with smallpox. A yellow flag fluttered
from their porch, signifying that the house had been quarantined.
neighbor was a widow whose son worked for the local daily newspaper, the Standard.
One day, the young man came running home from the newspaper office to
announce the world was ending, apparently because of the approach of Haley’s Comet.
The widow rushed over to Grandmother’s house to warn of the impending disaster.
woman was terrified, but my great-grandmother scoffed at the report.
she finally said, “if the world’s coming to an end, we might as well make some
She told my grandmother to start breaking up some ice and
then cranked up the central telephone exchange for a connection to the people
next door with the smallpox. With the end of the world at hand, she said, they
might as well forget about the danger of contagion and come over for some ice
cream before they died. That scared the fretful widow even more, Grandmother said.
course, the people with smallpox stayed put and Haley’s Comet continued its interplanetary
journey, leaving Earth no worse for the wear. But the Andersons and their nervous
neighbors sure enjoyed their ice cream.
Cox - June 26, 2013 column
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