Manufactured block ice had a profound impact on the Deep South, leaving a legacy still apparent today. Agriculture, poultry, dairy farming, and seafood became well-established industries with the introduction of plants that produced three-hundred-pound blocks of ice, the region’s first inexpensive means of refrigeration.
In Mississippi, manufactured ice plants appeared first in Natchez and later in Jackson in 1880. The Natchez plant was built on the banks of the Mississippi River, while Jackson’s Morris Ice Company was located along the Pearl River. By the early 1900s plants had been constructed on the coast and in North Mississippi. Run by steam engines, the plants produced their own electricity and often supplied excess energy to neighboring businesses or to the town itself.
Ice was at first a luxury used for cooling in the summertime, but both home and commercial usage grew steadily throughout the 1900s and 1910s. By World War I ice was so vital that men who worked at ice plants could be excused from war duty. During the Great Depression people were so dependent on ice that most plants suffered little setback. According to a 1934–35 Mississippi Bureau of Census study, sixty-seven of Mississippi’s eighty-two counties had ice plants, and their value totaled $3,630,000.
Well into the 1940s, ice plants relied on home delivery routes throughout the summer months. The homeowner would place a card, supplied by the ice plant, in the front window with the desired amount of ice needed—generally twenty-five, fifty, or seventy-five pounds. Two or three times a week, the deliveryman would chop off the appropriate amount from a three-hundred-pound block, carry it into the home, and place it in the icebox.
Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the seafood industry developed hand in hand with ice plants. Ships used ice in the hull to preserve the daily catch. Local markets used ice to store and display the seafood. Customers kept the seafood in their home iceboxes until they were ready to prepare it. The Pascagoula Ice and Freezer Company, purchased by Hermes Gautier in 1936 from the Electric Light and Power plant, is Mississippi’s only remaining block ice plant using an ammonia compressor system.
In the produce region in the middle of the state, ice was critical for refrigeration during transportation, enabling the shipment of produce to regional and national markets. One of the most notable ice plants, McComb Ice House and Creamery, was opened in McComb in 1904 by brothers Hugh and William McColgan. Located at the crossroads of the produce markets of Mississippi and Louisiana, the plant became the largest in the South in 1924, producing two hundred tons of ice a day. In 1926 Xavier Kramer purchased the plant, and it became the largest railroad-icing complex in the world. Using electronic conveyors, the icing galleries could load sixty rail cars simultaneously and ice an entire trainload of cars in less than an hour—less than half the usual time.
In the Delta, ice plants sold much of their product to cotton farmers for drinking water. When cotton choppers were replaced by herbicides, some ice plants relied on the catfish farming industry for their customer base. Ice, supplied oxygen and refrigeration when transporting live catfish to processing plants.
Numerous technological advances chipped away at the usefulness of the block ice business. From the invention of refrigerated trucks and railcars to the use of modern ice machines in restaurants and chicken-processing plants, the ammonia block ice plants became obsolete by the 1960s and 1970s.
- Mississippi, Bureau of Census, Ice Plants 1934–35: Study of Ad Valorem Assessments in Various Mississippi Industries (1935)
- Elli Morris, Cooling the South: The Block Ice Era, 1875–1975 (2008)
- Bernard Nagengast, Mechanical Engineering magazine website, www.memagazine.org