Ice Cold

IMG_2183Story by John Isaacson; Photo Courtesy of Baylor’s Texas Collection

With its crumbling red brick, broken glass from its high-arched windows, and the air of desertion, the Geyser Ice Plant is a shadow of its former self. Over 100 years ago, the building sitting at 927 Webster Ave. was one of the most recognizable sites in a bustling Waco. Testimony from Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History recorded Waco citizens reminiscing of a time when Geyser Ice Co. trucks could regularly be seen driving through the streets. The families would hang a card outside their door with the number 25, 50, 75 or 100, signifying how much ice the family wanted. Once the driver of the ice truck would see the card, he would stop and unload the desired poundage of ice, carrying it into the family’s kitchen ice box.

“They were almost a part of the family,” Waco resident Thomas Hardy. “They’d just come in the back door, knocked, and asked if everybody was decent because the iceman was here.” The city seemed to run through the Geyser ice plant. The managers of Geyser assumed places of leadership within the city, and Waco citizens could boast of living near one of the most modern ice plants in the American South. Despite the blistering summer months that infamously plagued Central Texas, Waco’s citizens of the 20th century never had to worry about ice. As the manager during Geyser’s peak years, J. Albert Greene, put it, Geyser had always met any demand.

For a time, the city dubbed itself as “Geyser City,” thanks in part to the artesian wells found in Waco during the late 19th century. Water, pressurized underground, would spring into the air, catching the awe of Wacoans. The ice plant used those springs, dubbing its ice pure. The ice plant was founded June 25, 1882, by Adolphus Busch of Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co. writes J.B. Smith for Waco History. Already a rising power in the Midwest, the German Busch made his fortune brewing beer and pushing beer’s popularity across the American South. Thus, directly neighboring the Busch brewery in Waco, Adolphus Busch founded an ice plant. At the time, Busch brewed an innovative pasteurized bottled beer, which needed to be kept cold in order not to spoil. Therefore, this special beer would be brewed in Waco, trains would stop at the neighboring tracks, and ice and beer would be shipped across Texas.

The success and popularity of Geyser ice plant grew at an astounding rate. Since refrigerators would not be produced en masse until the end of World War II, the citizens of Waco needed ice. By 1920, the plant was capable of producing 200 tons of ice per day. The cork-insulated building kept the ice and the ammonia compressors functional. Although by the 1920s the pressurized artesian wells no longer sprung water highly into the air, there was still an abundance of underground water that the plant could drill for, distill and then freeze into ice. By 1924, Geyser had 14 double-horse carriages that would deliver ice throughout the city.

The Geyser manager at the time, J. Albert Greene, was presiding over a booming business. Greene, who hailed from Canada, had worked his way through entry level jobs for the Busch company and become the manager and secretary-treasurer for the Geyser ice plant. He helped make Geyser very visible throughout the Waco community by involving himself with the Rotary Club, Lions Club, becoming president of the Ad League, and director of the Y.M.B.L. (Young Men’s Business League). Greene also helped lead Waco through membership in the Chamber of Commerce, and his leisurely influence extended to the Spring Lake Country Club and the Waco Boating and Fishing Club, according to a 1926 article published in The Waco News-Tribune.

As the 20th century progressed, Geyser invested in the newest technology. By 1933 the plant’s electrical and power needs were derived from two diesel engines. The technology of these special engines, specifically built for Geyser, could not be found in any other ice plant in Central Texas, making Geyser one of the most modern ice producers in the South. Soon after, the horse drawn carriages that carried ice were replaced with large carrying trucks. The ice plant opened storage space for Waco citizen’s perishables and furs. Geyser also opened smaller sister plants and storage houses in the neighboring towns of Clifton and in West. However, despite the glamor of the plant’s success, there were very real dangers for employees working in the Geyser ice plant. There were reported deaths from machinery accidents, crushing amounts of ice falling onto the workers, and even ice sliding off from cars and hitting bystanders on the side of the road. Yet, none of these tragedies could hinder the local impact Geyser ice had on Waco.

Whether by railroad, carriage and horse, or trucks, Waco was a critical commercial spot in Central Texas.
However, the booming of Geyser would soon hit its peak. Post-World War II, refrigerators would become common place in households. No longer having to wait for ice to be delivered, Waco citizens no longer had to use Geyser’s storage amenities for their perishables. The general demand for ice houses decreased. While railcars still used Geyser for its ice, the company’s peak days of 200 tons of ice were ending. By 1954 the ice plant came under the control of Southland Corp. of Dallas, which later became the parent company of 7-Eleven, according to an article in The Waco-News Tribune. They used the Geyser ice plant to store their own company’s Readdy Ice brand. By the early 2000s, the old Geyser building was storing up to 1 million pounds of ice a day. Yet soon parts of the building were condemned as no longer usable, and use for the building faded.

Today, outsiders can still see the red brick and large arched windows. If they walk inside, they could look at the empty old ice storage space and think it was an old swimming pool. Geyser ice plant no longer occupies a place in the everyday life of Wacoans. Yet as one of the oldest buildings in Waco, it still offers nostalgic vestiges of a prosperous time for Waco; a prosperous time where trains, carriages, trucks, and people could be seen down Webster Avenue. All looking for some ice on a hot Waco day.