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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Ice Man
Ice War in Ballinger
Ice Cream in the
Time of Smallpox

Ballinger, Texas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

With 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.

The protagonist 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.

Often 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.

Great-grandpa 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 daily.

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 iceman.

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 a killing.

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.

Thirty-six 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 icebox.

“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 the icebox.

“You better have everything out of the way when they came in,” she said.

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.

Grandmother 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.

Another 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.

The woman was terrified, but my great-grandmother scoffed at the report.

“Well,” she finally said, “if the world’s coming to an end, we might as well make some ice cream.”

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.

Of 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.

© Mike Cox - June 26, 2013 column
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