Before the invention of the refrigerator, Americans relied on the iceman. His frequent deliveries were similar to the milkman. He started his route at a local ice-warehouse where he loaded ice blocks onto a horse-drawn wagon. Ice was crucial for preserving food and keeping ice cream cold. Many people owned ice houses, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In 1880 ice consumption in the United States was nearly 5,250,000 tons. So useful was frozen water that an international trade in ice developed, a trade that included early Spokane.
New England’s Frederic Tudor, aka “Ice King of the World,” made a fortune selling ice in the nineteenth century. His workers cut ice slabs from Massachusetts ponds, packed them in sawdust for transport, and shipped the blocks to cities near and far, from New York to Cuba. Tudor’s ice trade transformed daily life and allowed people to enjoy cold food in the summer and dine on perishable meat and vegetables from faraway locales.
Spokane too was part of the ice trade. In the early nineteenth century, agricultural produce was an integral part to the development of Spokane. Produce warehouses, creameries and restaurants relied on ice to preserve food. Huge ice blocks were collected from local lakes and sent by rail to the city.
J.H. Pifer owned the contract that supplied the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads in 1916. His 10,000-ton ice-storage house was located on Sprague Lake. He also used ice harvested from the Great Lakes where 100 railroad cars per day were shipped out to nineteen different storage houses, carrying as much as 50,000 tons of ice per year.
One of the Pacific Northwest’s largest ice houses was the Hazelwood Ice Company, who employed about 130 men to cut ice from Blanchard Lake, Idaho. The company also supplied the Northern Pacific, the Milwaukee, and the Spokane International railroads for their refrigeration cars. The company packed two railcars daily in the summer, mainly for ice-cream, heading to Cle Elum, Othello, Malden, and Avery, Idaho.
In 1921 there were 5000 mechanical refrigerators manufactured in the United States. Ten years later, over one million were produced. By the end of the 1930s the mechanical refrigerator was a common appliance in middle-class America, ending the need for the iceman.