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Things That Matter: Ice chipper ushers in era of cold drinks

The ice chipper is emblematic of an industry that rose to prominence and fell into obscurity within a hundred years, but it left behind a craving for iced drinks.

People have used ice for centuries, but for most of that time only the elite could afford it. Turning the luxury into a necessity was the work of Frederic Tudor, beginning in 1805. He spent 30 years and three stints in debtors prison to convince ordinary people they needed ice, not just to keep food fresh but also for their beverages.

As the business of selling frozen water grew, it became feasible for middle class families to buy ice. Blocks of ice, harvested from lakes and rivers in the cold months, were delivered to households in the warmer months. By the 1840s, iceboxes could be found in most American kitchens. Along with the iceboxes came the tools — picks, chippers and crushers — needed to render huge blocks of ice into more useable forms.

This chipper is a Gilchrist 50, a form patented by Raymond Gilchrist in 1919, and it was most likely used in a bar or soda fountain to knock chips off the big block for iced soda or beer. Like the rest of the country, La Crosse drinkers wanted ice. In 1919 there were four ice dealers and 118 saloons listed in the La Crosse City Directory.

But the rise in ice’s popularity brought about the collapse of the industry. The demand for ice led to innovations for making ice cheaper and less messy. Iceboxes gave way to the electric refrigerator starting in 1915. By 1950, the icebox was obsolete as modern refrigerators were cheap enough for nearly every household.

Today, making ice is easy, and the business of selling frozen water has changed. We no longer need to fill the icebox with huge blocks, or even refill empty ice trays. Hardly anyone uses an ice chipper anymore, when it’s so easy to buy bags of pre-molded ice nuggets, and many refrigerators come equipped with ice makers.

What hasn’t changed is our craving for the cold stuff. Shaved, cubed or chipped, we still want ice in our drinks. Cheers!

You can see this ice chipper for yourself in the kitchen at Hixon House, 429 N. Seventh St., the historic house and museum owned and operated by the La Crosse County Historical Society. The Hixon House, once the home of La Crosse lumber baron Gideon Hixon and his family, opens for tours on Memorial Day, May 30.

For hours and cost, call 608-782-1980 or go to www.lchshistory.org.

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