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By Terry Ommen
Dusting Off History 

When Ice Came to Town


Last updated 3/2/2023 at 7:24pm | View PDF

The early Visalia Manufacturing Company ice plant was located at Main Street and East Street (now Santa Fe). (Photo circa 1900)

Today it's an almost indispensible commodity, especially if you live or visit the San Joaquin Valley in the summer. It is a common staple in almost all homes, restaurants and any place that caters to the public, and it comes in all forms including blocks, cubes and crushed. For many it is important for tea, sodas and many adult drinks that normally are served "on the rocks."

Its versatility makes it useful for treating painful injuries, and it's essential for creating a hard surface for skating. It is, of course, ice. Today, even though it holds such importance, it is often taken for granted. But that wasn't the case for people in Tulare County in the 1800s.

Due to its age, Visalia in the 19th century makes an interesting study of this frozen water marvel. Before ice-making technology arrived, ice was a rare treat and only available when individuals and companies would go to the mountains during the winter and cut blocks of ice from frozen lakes and ponds.

Of course, this was only possible when roads were passable for transport wagons. Ice from the mountains required special care during hauling and storage. It needed to be wrapped in burlap and sawdust to prevent excessive melting.

Reportedly in 1869, Visalia's first delivery of ice came from the Eshom area, however, in 1860, Charles McVeigh, owner of the Cosmopolitan saloon, was already advertising that he had a "constant supply of ice" on hand for beverages.

By 1870, demand for ice was soaring. A man named Harman was taking orders in town and he had a warehouse capable of storing 300 tons. With the arrival of the railroad into Tulare County in 1872, the ice industry received a boost. The firm of Thomas & Mead began supplying the county seat with Truckee ice, which was thicker and believed to be better quality. Thanks to expanded rail lines, ice even made its way from Chicago to Visalia.

In May 1897, the first commercial ice manufacturing plant was built in Visalia by local businessmen S.C. Brown, W.H. Hammond, A.G. Wishon, M.S. Monroe, S.A. Elbow and S.J. Scott. These men were closely affiliated with Mt. Whitney Power & Electric, a pioneering hydroelectric power company that became part of Southern California Edison, so by 1899 the ice plant became electrified. It took the name Visalia Manufacturing Company and was conveniently located next to the Visalia Water Works at Main Street and East Street (now Santa Fe). It was considered the "first artificial ice plant erected in the San Joaquin Valley."

Shown here on the left is J. Pierce Gannon as a boy, using an ice hook to carry a block of ice. Gannon went on to become mayor of Visalia. (Photo circa 1912)

Contract pricing for ice was set at $6 per ton, or ½ cent per pound for smaller orders. The plant could produce six tons daily.

The company operated there until September 1921, when a new and more modern plant was erected near the corner of Race and East streets. The new facility had a 30-ton ice-making capacity and was situated adjacent to the tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad. In 1923, other improvements were added to the site, including a soda works, garage, barns and coal sheds.

S.C. Brown was president of the company until his death in 1915, at which time S.J. Scott took over leadership. He served as company head until his retirement in 1919. Eventually, Central California Ice Company took over the ice plant building, and it remained at the Race Street site until about 1976, when the Visalia Players Community Theater took over the building, and today it's called the Ice House Theater.


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