Texas Icehouses Melt Away

Abandoned icehouse i i

An abandoned icehouse in San Antonio, Texas. The Kitchen Sisters hide caption

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Abandoned icehouse

An abandoned icehouse in San Antonio, Texas.

The Kitchen Sisters
Bottle-caps at ice house parking lot

How to spot an icehouse: "If there not 46 zillion bottlecaps laying in the parking lot crushed by 46 million pickup trucks -- you're in the wrong place." -- Rhett Rushing, Institute for Texan Cultures The Kitchen Sisters hide caption

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The Penguin of Contreras Ice House

San Antonio's Contreras Ice House, on the west side of town along the Alazan Creek, was closed up tight when we passed by, but the signature tuxedo-clad penguin remains. The Kitchen Sisters hide caption

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Shirley Vidal at Sanchez's Ice House

Shirley Vidal is a police dispatcher in San Antonio. Every Thursday night, she goes down to Sanchez's Ice House to meet up with her friends from the police department. Their beer is iced and their picnic tables are great. The Kitchen Sisters hide caption

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The Kitchen Sisters with Shirley Denis of Beer Depot

Shirley Denis, left, and Nikki Silva & Davia Nelson (The Kitchen Sisters) at the 100-year-old Beer Depot in San Antonio. The Kitchen Sisters hide caption

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The Texan Ice House

The Texan is right along the train tracks. When the train goes by, the beers go down to $1.35. It's called "Train Beer." And when the train pulls in, the guys get off to pick up tamales from the Delicious Tamale Company next door. The Kitchen Sisters hide caption

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Sterling Houston, cooling down at La Tuna. i i

Sterling Houston, cooling down at La Tuna. "My dad owned bars and as a child that's where I spent a lot of time. To me, the scent of spilled beer on the floor of a bar is like sweetness of flowers," he says. The Kitchen Sisters hide caption

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Sterling Houston, cooling down at La Tuna.

Sterling Houston, cooling down at La Tuna. "My dad owned bars and as a child that's where I spent a lot of time. To me, the scent of spilled beer on the floor of a bar is like sweetness of flowers," he says.

The Kitchen Sisters

'Last Call for Ice Houses'

A clip from the work-in-progress documentary film on icehouse culture by Ron Zimmerman and Tom Denyer:

Texas Icehouses. Part town hall, part tavern, icehouses have been a South Texas tradition since the 1920s. Before refrigeration, icehouses stored and distributed block ice for the neighborhood iceboxes.

Over time, they diversified— iced beer, a little food, maybe some groceries — a cool, air-conditioned spot where neighbors and families come to sit, talk, play dominoes, turn up the juke box, maybe eat some chicken wings, dance on the slab outside. No two are alike — Sanchez', Acapulco, Dos Hermanas, Stanley's, La Tuna, The Beer Depot, The Texan.

Once a vital part of everyday local culture — a cornerstone of every neighborhood in San Antonio and Houston — they are rapidly diminishing, an endangered species. The Kitchen Sisters take us on a journey into this Mexican-German-Tejano-Anglo tradition.

Story Notes

A lot of Kitchen Sisters stories are born in taxicabs. In fact, the whole Hidden Kitchens concept was conceived in the back of a Yellow cab in San Francisco. The icehouses of Texas came to our minds in a Checker in San Antonio. We were there last year on our way to an interview for our story on the Chili Queens when we saw an abandoned ice depot on the way and asked the driver what it was. He began to tell us the story of how ice was delivered to the neighborhoods and the birth of the icehouses all over town. We were hooked and lured a year later to document this faded but vibrant tradition, and to drink some Texas beer chilled on Texas ice.

Along the Road

Sterling Houston, author and playwright, grew up in and around icehouses in San Antonio. We spent one evening with Houston visiting some of his favorites. This is an excerpt from his novel, The Secret Oral Teachings of the Sacred Walking Blues:

The Ice House, which really did sell ice, but mostly sold ice-cold beer, cigarettes and soda water, was situated on a wedge of ground formed by the "x" of two dirt roads pretentiously called Hedges Street and Gevers Boulevard. This Ice House was not an actual house of ice but a tin shed cobbled together from the salvaged pressed tin ceiling panels of the Good Samaritan Colored Hospital torn down in 1948.

These were big tabletop-sized pieces of tin embossed with olive branch borders surrounding a central thistle bloom. Many of them were decorated with big cloudy stains caused when long-ago storms leaked through. These panels had been banged together on a skeleton of two-by-fours, and were decorated by colorful tin and porcelain advertising signs for Nehi, grapes, Lone Star, Pearl and Chesterfield Kings.

The resulting shed was topped by a roof of rusty corrugated tin, which hung out over the front, by several feet. This overhang was supported at its corners by stout posts made from sawed-off telephone poles. It gave the front of the place the look of a funky trading post, which in a way, it was.

Behind the little building and beside the outside toilet (which was not an outhouse, but a cabinet made of plywood packing crates built around a single, seatless commode) there grew an ancient mesquite tree. Although most mesquites grow squat and spread out like gnarled and signifying hands, this one had tapped into a deep spring, which fed it till it had grown twice the normal height. It had grown tall and twisty like a monster bonsai slanting lazily to shade the little shed from the furnace blast of mid-day mid-year mid century San Antonio Texas afternoons.

At times, groups of men gathered here to play cards, or loudly click dominoes and shout. Other times a lone man and his guitar and Kindhearted Woman and Have You Ever been Mistreated and sometime all of this at once plus me nine-years-old drinking Nehi grape and pineapple Hippo soda water. That time year day hour had frozen in amber suspended in the murmur of guitar strings trembling forever unresolved. Yeah. Secret."

Chilled Watermelon , 7-Elevens, Big Gulps and Slurpees

In the 1860s, there were three ice-manufacturing plants in San Antonio and only five others in the United States. By 1928, Southland Ice (later Southland Corp, now 7-Eleven Inc.) operated twelve ice plants and twenty retail ice docks in Dallas and San Antonio.

After one store placed a souvenir totem pole at its entrance, Southland stores came to be known as "Tote'm Stores," since customers toted away their purchases. They pioneered the practice of conveniently locating ice pickup stations in neighborhoods and by first selling chilled watermelon, then groceries and other items along with block ice — helping to launch the convenience–store concept.

The difference between the icehouse and the icehouse-turned-modern-convenience-store is this, as one man said: " A Stop & Go is just that. This is a stop and stay. You put down anchors here."

'Hidden Kitchens' Hotline

Karl Stephan, whose great-uncle was in the ice business, called to tell us his story and to share some of his grandmother's recipes. Call us at 1-866-OVENMIT with your Texas Kitchen tales.

Hangin' at the Icehouse

The people you hear in this story (in order of their appearance) are:

 

Rhett Rushing, Institute of Texan Cultures

 

John Ciabelli, Yellow Checker cab, San Antonio

 

Anonymous reveler at Sanchez Ice House

 

Randy Mallory, journalist and writer

 

Mike Ullrich, head doorman at La Mansion Del Rio, San Antonio

 

Bartender at The Texan

 

Shirley Denis, owner of The Beer Depot, San Antonio

 

Ronnie Gomez, aka Ronnie G.

 

Lillian Rangel, United Way, San Antonio

 

Ron Zimmerman, filmmaker, San Antonio

 

Cynthia Baker, corporate communications, 7-Eleven Inc.

 

Jerry Torres and the crew from Quality Tile at La Tuna Icehouse

Story Credits

Produced by The Kitchen Sisters (Nikki Silva & Davia Nelson), with Laura Folger, Kate Volkman and Maria Walcutt. Mixed by Jim McKee

 

Special thanks to Texas Public Radio, KPAC, KSTX & KTXI in San Antonio and to Janet Grojean & Sonia Howle and Heather Hunter at The Texas Folklife Festival. Rhett Rushing and Tom Shelton at the Institute for Texas Cultures, Randy Mallory, Char Miller, Ron Zimmerman, George Cisnero & Lynn Gosnell, Cynthia Baker and 7-Eleven, Inc., Nola McKey and Texas Highways Magazine, John Griffin at San Antonio Express, Daniel Bradford and Paul Abrams, Archivists Joe Dobbs, Evan Hocker & Ben Grillot, Eric Bright at KERA, Dallas, Casey Monahan at Texas Center for Music, Geof Edwards, Anne Mason & Allie Sultan at ZAP Productions, 4th floor compadres, David Roberts & Tony Liano, Kalman Muller & Archivist James Mockoski at American Zoetrope, and to Stewart Vanderwilt & Hawk Mendenhall and KUT Austin.

 

For the sights... cold beer...the hang ... the spot: Sylvia Vidal and the gang at Sanchez Ice House, Mike Ulrich and the gang at The Texan Ice House, Sterling Houston and the hang at La Tuna Ice House, Shirley Denis at The Beer Depot, Dos Hermanas Ice House, Acapulco and The Alabama Ice House in Houston, and Adiós to Contreras Ice House.

 

For the music: Randy Thom & Kyle Gray, Susan & Jerry Jeff Walker, Cindy Cashdollar, Ray Benson, Sylvia Zamarripa at KAHL, San Antonio, Aaron Prado at Trinity College Radio KRTU, Jim Beal at San Antonio Express, John Morthland at Texas Monthly, Joe Goldmark & Amoeba Records. Special birthday shout out to Chris Strachwitz at Arhoolie Records.

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Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters

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Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters
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The Kitchen Sisters
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Released
2005

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