Sometimes the importance of one’s possessions cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Their personal value far exceeds what you could ever sell them for. I offer as evidence two very mundane items for your consideration—two common ice picks. Both are special, but one is very special. In the modern world of ice dispensed from the door of your refrigerator or purchased in a bag at the corner convenience store, it is understandable that some might not have ever used an ice pick. Decades ago, ice picks were very common and every household had at least one. Why? To pick ice, of course.
Some ice pick background.
My wife’s family used to own ice houses in Kenner, Gretna, Marrero, Grand Isle, and Lafitte, LA—Cristina Ice and Cold Storage. They are down to one plant now, and though they have some modern equipment that makes the ice like you find at your neighborhood convenience store, they still make some ice the old way—in 300-pound blocks. And let me tell you, that is a lot of ice. I know because I have manhandled my share of 300-pound blocks around to prove my worthiness to marry one the Cristina daughters.
These behemoth blocks of ice are formed in “cans” suspended in a brine solution that is below freezing temps and kept there by ammonia compressors that are around a hundred years old (next stop for them: the Smithsonian). But they still work because they built them like battleships a hundred years ago. The “ice puller,” which was me during one summer working at the Cristina plant down in Grand Isle, uses an electric hoist and picks up a unit of four cans from out of the brine, then manhandles that over to a pool of water and lets it down into the water to allow the ice to be freed from the can’s sides. Once the ice pops free, the four cans of ice are picked up and placed in a cradle. That allows the cans to be tipped onto their sides, and the ice slides out onto the deck.
But they are laying on edge and must be stood up. The ice puller grabs a set of ice tongs, clamps them securely at the top end of one of the 300-pound blocks, and with a mighty heave, stands it up. This works well most of the time. I say that because one time it didn’t work so well for this ice puller. I grabbed the ice with the tongs and with a mighty heave tried to stand 300 pounds of ice on its end—that would be the end that had a corner missing somehow. I got it about halfway up, and the missing corner caused it to twist free of my tongs and land on my right foot! After dancing around on one foot screaming unprintable expletives at the top of my lunges, I got my boot off. The big toe was somewhat larger than it had been a few moments prior, and the toenail was perched on top of at rather impressive looking blood blister. No matter, I’m 19 and tough. I put my boot back on and finished my shift. Fortunately, I was due for two days off, but as I’m driving back to Kenner from Grand Isle, my big toe is loudly protesting my aggressive use of the accelerator on my ’57 Chevy. Also fortuitously, my father was a doctor, and I found him at home when I limped in the back door. He made a quick examination of my throbbing toe, and as was his modus operandi, he simply nodded knowingly before retiring from the room to return with a Gillette razor blade. He lanced the aching blister, which promptly belched a bunch of blood, releasing the pressure and relieving the pain completely. The toenail fell off a few days later, but I grew a new one just as ugly as its predecessor. (Really sorry, but I have no pics of that to share with you.)
Back to the ice. After the blocks are stood on end, they are dragged with the tongs into the cold storage. From there they might be sold whole to some shrimper, crushed, or cut down into smaller blocks for sale to individual customers wanting ice for whatever.
Back before WWII, it was common for homes to have an “icebox.” The name comes from the fact that early refrigerators were not electrified but kept their contents cold with blocks of ice. Below is a picture of a real icebox made by the Illinois Refrigerator Company. It is probably over 100 years old. The small door on the right was to the compartment where the 25 or 50-pound block of ice went. This icebox has been converted into a bar. We had an icebox in our summer home in Waveland back in the fifties. It was a “modern” version because it was made of white porcelain-coated steel instead of wood like the much older one in the picture. Ice “peddlers” would make the rounds of neighborhoods, delivering ice for these old ice boxes. For decades after they were replaced by electric refrigerators, we often called modern refrigerators “iceboxes.” Some of us probably still do so. Now you know why.
Back to that 300-pound block of ice again. Opened wide, the ice tongs were used as a measuring gauge to divide the block into thirds (100 pounds each). These were often cut in half (50 pounds each) or down to 25 pounders. This is where the ice pick comes in. The ice is “scribed” with the ice pick point by tracing a line of shallow jabs along the side of the ice block where you want it divided. That is followed by one or two deeper stabs along the scribed line, and the ice breaks cleanly. It is actually pretty amazing to watch. Ice picks were also used by customers to further break down the larger blocks for iced drinks or use in their portable ice chests. The Cristina Ice Service bought ice picks by the hundreds. They used them, and others were given away as promotional items to good customers. One such promotional ice pick is seen in the image attached, the smaller of the two with the brand info on the handle.
That brings me to the ice pick that prompted this post. I refer to the larger one of the two in the picture above. That one is a homemade ice pick made by one of the Cristina Ice Service employees and given to me as a gift one Christmas about 30 years ago. It was made by Roosevelt Henry, Sr. Roosevelt lived in Kenner and rode the bus all the way to the Cristina Jefferson Box on Jefferson Highway in Old Jefferson near Causeway Blvd. The Jefferson Box was not a manufacturing plant but rather a sales outlet for their ice made elsewhere. I think he worked for the Cristinas for around a hundred years, at least it seemed that long. He was old when I first met him and older still when he retired some 20+ years later.
We lived not far away from the Jefferson Box and got our ice there. Roosevelt knew me well, and he eventually found out I worked for the Sazerac Company. Every Christmas, Roosevelt would ask if I had a “little something” I could give him “to put in my coffee?” And every Christmas I would find a bottle of something for Roosevelt’s coffee, for which he was always grateful. Then one Christmas he surprised me with a gift, an ice pick he had made. It was obvious that he was very proud of his handiwork by the way he described how he made it. He made them from old automobile radio antennas. Back then auto antennas were rather stout shafts of stainless steel, which he would acquire from the junkyard. He would then cut the antenna down into ice pick sizes, probably getting as many as three out of one antenna, and grind the shafts into a sharp point for cutting ice. To this, he added an old, cut-down hammer handle for grasping, which he got from who knows where, because I’m sure he didn’t buy new ones from the hardware store. And voila, you have a very effective, hand-made, ice pick. It wasn’t fancy, but it was effective and a gift from the heart.
Roosevelt is dead now, but his memory lives on in the ice pick he made for me, a Christmas gift I will always cherish for the memories it brings forth. Every time I use it I think of his smiling face and him asking me if I have “a little something he can put in his coffee?”