The Icemen Cometh

A few months ago, I replaced my refrigerator. It had more than fulfilled its duty, having given my family over 25 years of service. Other than coming up with the money, switching the older model for a new one was about as easy to do as reaching into the fridge for last night’s leftovers. I never really thought about what a luxury it is to have a refrigerator in my home until I learned about the workers who used to deliver ice in our city.

My opportunity to meet the descendants of those “ice men” came as a result of our library’s Memoir Project. For the last five years, the project’s goal has been to find people willing to share local history in the form of a memoir, which we publish as a keepsake book. The Project’s team selects a theme, and in 2014 we chose Fulton businesses.

Shortly after deciding to focus on Fulton commerce we got word from two people who had similar memories to share. Virginia Messerschmidt offered to write about her father, Joseph Growe, who once owned a delivery business known as Growe Brother’s Ice. Shortly after we heard from Virginia, three members of the Cavalier family—Fred Cavalier Jr., Mary DeLong and Pat Hine—came forward, willing to share their story of Fred Cavalier, who had a business known as Gardner’s Ice. Here’s how Virginia began her father’s story:

“Joseph Growe was an ice delivery man in the Fulton area from 1932 to 1948. At the time of his business, homes had no refrigerators and relied on delivery men to fill their iceboxes with 25- to 50-pound ice blocks that keep their perishables cold. My father had a 1934 Ford panel van with two doors in the rear that swung out to facilitate removing the ice for door-to-door delivery. In 1937, he formed a partnership with his brother Earl. It was known as Growe Brothers Dependable Ice and the brothers remained partners until Earl died.”

Virginia researched old newspapers to learn more about the Growe Brothers’ business. One advertisement showed Growe Brothers located near the current Towpath Towers building; another listed it a short distance from there, at 78 South Second Street. Further documents indicate its home at 158, 159 or 162 South Second Street. Virginia’s cousin, Clara Atkinson, remembers the ice house being in an alleyway next to Quirk Theatre. Virginia had an idea why there were so many Growe Brothers addresses: “My brother, Ed Growe, thinks he remembers the ice house being set on skids so it could be moved.”

Shortly after World War II ended, Virginia’s father got out of the ice business. At the time, metal was becoming more available to make refrigerators, so many people retired their iceboxes. Virginia’s uncle, Mert Gardner, took over the ice business in the same address, but with a new name: Gardner’s Ice. Mert’s family continued Fulton’s ice delivery story.

Mary DeLong: “My father had two trucks: a smaller truck, which he used for making his deliveries, and one for picking up ice at the ice house in Oswego, where the Foundry is today. That was a red pickup truck with a tarp over the back, and sometimes Dad would let us ride with him to pick up more ice. That ice house was huge and it was colder than cold in there. It had a chute that we used to slide down, and in the summertime we thought it was the greatest thing to go there.

“Dad would pick up 100-pound blocks of ice, which had a groove down the middle both ways so they could divide the blocks up into 25-pound pieces. He would fill the back of the pickup truck and put the tarp over it. The ice house also sold small ice cubes. They were too big for a glass, but you could hold one right in your hand. We’d always take one and suck on it while he was loading up the truck.”

Pat Hines: “His delivery truck had high sides so he could fill the whole thing and just peddle all day long. He used ice tongs to take the ice off the back of the truck, however much someone wanted.”

Mary: “On Monday morning Dad would take off and start his first route, going from house to house to ask if they needed 25 or 50 pounds. He had different routes, going to certain sections of the city on certain days.  He might have to go on some routes a couple of times a week.”

Virginia explained how customers could put in an order a delivery: “People would put a sign in their window for how much ice they wanted.”

Once orders were placed, ice men filled them, as Mary described: “I remember Dad chopping the ice, which he could do in a matter of a few minutes. Then he’d use his tongs to put the ice on his shoulder and carry it in.”

Virginia mentioned a friend, Anne Bodwich, who once lived on the Growe Brothers’ ice delivery route. “She remembers my father carrying ice on his shoulder up the steps to her second floor apartment. When my Uncle Mert owned the business, his son, Bob Gardner, said he remembered that his mother, Vivien, could find her husband by following the trail of melted ice on the street.”

My thanks to Virginia and the Gardner family for giving us a trail of ice-delivery memories we can follow back to our city’s history.

Fred Cavalier and his wife in front of the truck he used for years making ice deliveries to residents of Fulton.

Fred Cavalier and his wife in front of the truck he used for years making ice deliveries to residents of Fulton.