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Column: Old ice house demolition chipping away at history

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Al White, former pastor of First Christian Church in Columbus, walked through the old ice house on Third Street in 2009 after the church had acquired the building. Plans call for it to be demolished later this year to provide the church with additional parking.
Al White, former pastor of First Christian Church in Columbus, walked through the old ice house on Third Street in 2009 after the church had acquired the building. Plans call for it to be demolished later this year to provide the church with additional parking. FILE PHOTO

AS Columbus treasures go, I would have to rank the ice house as one of the oddest.

The one-story structure, which was recently and accurately described as “the ugly red brick building,” is apparently going to be demolished later this year. The owner of the property, First Christian Church, plans to use the empty space for a parking lot.

The building has been mostly dormant since 2003, although the church has used it as a storage area for items that were made available for low-income families.

It hasn’t served as an ice house for at least a decade, and in the years leading up to its closing, there wasn’t a whole lot of ice that was produced within it. People just didn’t have a lot of use for its product. They could get bags of ice from the nearest grocery or convenience store for their picnics or to ice down bottled drinks in their coolers.

Those large blocks of frozen water that generations earlier were used to preserve food in ice boxes eventually lost their reason for being. Many Donner Pool swimmers became familiar with them on extra hot days when they were dropped into the water, ostensibly to provide some coolness but really to stage a photo opportunity of kids floating on big blocks of ice.

If there’s an architectural value to the building, we’re in trouble. It looks out of place next to the 19th-century building that houses the Bartholomew County Historical Society. Even if it were to be restored, it would still be an “ugly red brick building.”

All that said, the ice house still has an inexplicable place in the hearts of a lot of local folks.

There was talk a few years ago of the historical society acquiring the property, restoring it and using it as a repository for some of its artifacts. Someone even depicted it in an oil painting, a copy of which was prominently displayed in the offices of a local downtown business.

And then there were the opinions expressed in the three letters to the editor that appeared on the Opinion Page Saturday. Ugly red brick not withstanding, the ice house was very personal to these folks.

I can’t speak to their feelings, but I can understand them. There seems to be a sadness about the demise of the ice house, but I don’t think it’s about the loss of a building. I suspect it’s more about the loss of a memory.

In terms of old buildings in Columbus, the ice house is pretty new.

It came into being in 1925 when Clancy Cook opened Serv-Ice and Coal Co. Clancy had both ends of the heating and cooling business covered, distributing coal for the coal-fired furnaces that heated most of the homes and businesses in Columbus and blocks of ice for homeowners who depended on them to preserve food in their ice boxes.

If that seems odd to 21st century minds, consider that Clancy had competition. The Columbus Fuel and Ice Co. had been offering similar services in Columbus since the 19th century.

Eventually — as refrigeration caught on and coal-fired furnaces gave way to oil- and gas-fueled heating devices — Clancy was the only ice and coal supplier left standing.

The business was taken over by his wife, Bess, who had to cope with the changing times and the effects on her business. She and the business adjusted. In 1950 The Evening Republican reported that “ice cubes are the newest product at the Serv-Ice and Coal Co. at Third and Lafayette. A new machine can turn out 15,000 ice cubes in an hour, according to company vice president Robert A. Grant Sr.”

Restaurants and other businesses that had to rely on ice to cool their products kept the company going. So did a lot of folks who pulled up to the loading dock to either order bags of ice from a coin-operated machine or watch as workers shoveled huge batches of chipped ice into their buckets or bags.

Even those customers found other ways to obtain their products.

With the business gone, there are only memories of the old ice house and the building that helps keep them alive. However, we’re all growing old, and the number of people who can remember the ice house as it was in the old days is growing smaller.

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