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Texas Icehouses Melt Away

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Texas Icehouses Melt Away

Texas Icehouses Melt Away

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is the time of year when you could fry an egg on the sidewalks in San Antonio, if you dared to go out on the sidewalks in San Antonio. It's the kind of heat that calls for ice.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Today, in this Hidden Kitchen story: the icehouses of Texas. It's a tradition that goes back more than a century to a time when ice was a utility like water or electricity.

Mr. MICHAEL ULLRICH (Head Doorman, La Mansion Del Rio Hotel, San Antonio, Texas): Hey, Grandpa. Are you there? How you doing? Oh, pretty good. Hey, I got a question for you. Remember that icehouse you used to go to and Pop used to go to? I think it's still there isn't it? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! Down on West Avenue. Oh, I'm doing fine. Yeah, I'm at work. Hey, I've got to run, Grandpa; I've got cars coming in. All right, we'll see you later. Love you.

Hey, there's a icehouse over on West Avenue. And he said everybody there is 150 years old. I'm off tomorrow. If you want me to take you over there, I can. I'm Michael Ullrich, the doorman at La Mansion Del Rio Hotel in San Antonio, Texas.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. RHETT RUSHING (Staff Folklorist, Institute of Texas Cultures): An icehouse is easy to spot. You look for horseshoe pits outside. You look for domino tables that are worn slick. You can spot an icehouse by the sawdust, even though they don't store blocks of ice in sawdust anymore, you can still see the sawdust evident on the tables or the dance floor. Are the boards warped from having a thousand beers spilled on them over the last hundred years?

There are just clues. There are smells. What's the parking lot made out of? Crushed shell in southeast Texas - crushed limestone in the hill country. If there are not 47 billion bottle caps that have been run over by pickup trucks, then you're in the wrong place.

Mr. ULLRICH: That's the icehouse right there. That's it: The Texan. The garage doors are open.

Unidentified Speaker #1: No A/Cs. Sweating in your beer, it's so hot.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

Unidentified Woman #2: Train beer!

Unidentified Man #3: It's a train beer. Every time the train passes, you get a beer for a dollar, twenty-five.

Mr. RUSHING: The icehouse started off being where cut ice was stored. We didn't have refrigeration.

Mr. RUSHING: My name is Rhett Rushing, Institute of Texas Cultures here in San Antonio. Beforehand, getting ice was almost unheard of. All ice was harvested from northern lakes - Wisconsin, Minnesota - you know, wherever you had thick ice. And it was a major industry. You'd go out and you'd saw up the ice into blocks, pack it in sawdust, and they would load it on a ship to haul it as far south as they could. Sometimes they even made it to Galveston before it was gone.

Mr. JOHN CIABELLI (Taxi Driver, Yellow Checker Cab, San Antonio, Texas): Behold, icehouses! They were the first one to serve beer iced down. Sanchez's is a hidden place. It's underneath the bridge - underneath the freeway. If you drive by, you will not see it. You have to know where it's at. My name is John Ciabelli, Yellow Checker Cab in San Antonio, Texas. It gets packed at night. The whole lot is full of cars.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4: I mean, Sanchez's is the place to be. I mean, it's an old, old, hole-in-the-wall place and everything, but you have your lawyers, judges -oh, man, I mean, famous people come here, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) I ain't got a (unintelligible). I ain't got a (unintelligible).

Mr. RANDY MALLORY (Journalist): In the 1860s, there were three ice manufacturing plants in San Antonio. There were only five others in the entire U.S. My name is Randy Mallory. I'm a journalist in east Texas.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MALLORY: German immigration came into Texas in the 1840s and needed beer.

(Soundbite of singing in German)

Mr. MALLORY: Germans and Czechs - a lot of little communities would have their own little breweries and, therefore, you'd have to have that ice.

(Soundbite of singing in German)

Mr. MALLORY: Growing up, my parents used to go to an icehouse when we were very, very little. They would bring the family. They'd buy the little kids the soda and potato chips and everything to keep them entertained while they were out there dancing and having a nice time and enjoying the music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RON ZIMMERMAN (Filmmaker): The conjuto style of music came from the icehouses that were up and down St. Mary's street south of the quarries where the Germans and the Mexican stonemasons got together in the evenings. You've got accordions, German rhythms and their Spanish lyrics. I'm Ron Zimmerman, filmmaker and resident of San Antonio.

(Soundbite of singing in Spanish)

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: In the early 1900s, people didn't have electrical refrigeration in their homes; they had iceboxes - put blocks of ice in it. And the ice plants built ice stations that were scattered all over neighborhoods and became neighborhood hangouts.

In the '20s, in Dallas, the Southland Ice Company had ice stations, and the one in Oak Cliff decided, why not sell a few other items - eggs, milk - right from the ice dock. And people liked that convenience - the longer hours. Southland Ice decided to expand it.

Initially, they were called totems. Someone had brought a totem pole from Alaska and put it out in front of one of these stores. At one point, they came up with the idea of seven-eleven - 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. - and that's the name that stuck.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CYNTHIA BAKER (Communications Manager, 7-Eleven): All of the things that have come out of 7-Eleven: the Slurpee, the Big Gulp, coffee-to-go. We want employees to understand that we began as a small icehouse. I'm Cynthia Baker, Communications Manager for 7-Eleven, Inc. We still offer ice because that's convenience. You have so many picnics and barbeques, and don't forget the bag of ice.

Unidentified Speaker #5: Well, it doesn't get any better than this and you feel it under the trees. Nice little breeze. Hundred-degree day. Having some beer with your comrades here.

(Soundbite of clinking bottles)

Unidentified Man #6: We're tile setters. (Unintelligible) together. We work together.

Unidentified Man #7: Cry together.

Unidentified Man #8: San Antonio's ice houses - they're like London's pubs or Paris street cafes or Vienna's coffee houses or Munich's beer halls. They're people's public living rooms.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: Our story was produced by The Kitchen Sisters, authors of the book Hidden Kitchens. The series is produced by Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson with Jay Allison. It's mixed by Jim McKee. You can find out more about Texas icehouses at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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