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Texas Icehouses Melt Away

Texas Icehouses. Part town hall, part tavern, icehouses have been a South Texas tradition since the 1920s. Before refrigeration, icehouses stored and distributed block ice for the neighborhood iceboxes.

Over time, they diversified-- iced beer, a little food, maybe some groceries — a cool, air-conditioned spot where neighbors and families come to sit, talk, play dominoes, turn up the juke box, maybe eat some chicken wings, dance on the slab outside. No two are alike — Sanchez', Acapulco, Dos Hermanas, Stanley's, La Tuna, The Beer Depot, The Texan.

Once a vital part of everyday local culture — a cornerstone of every neighborhood in San Antonio and Houston — they are rapidly diminishing, an endangered species. The Kitchen Sisters take us on a journey into this Mexican-German-Tejano-Anglo tradition.

Story Notes

A lot of Kitchen Sisters stories are born in taxicabs. In fact, the whole Hidden Kitchens concept was conceived in the back of a Yellow cab in San Francisco. The icehouses of Texas came to our minds in a Checker in San Antonio. We were there last year on our way to an interview for our story on the Chili Queens when we saw an abandoned ice depot on the way and asked the driver what it was. He began to tell us the story of how ice was delivered to the neighborhoods and the birth of the icehouses all over town. We were hooked and lured a year later to document this faded but vibrant tradition, and to drink some Texas beer chilled on Texas ice.

Along the Road

Sterling Houston, author and playwright, grew up in and around icehouses in San Antonio. We spent one evening with Houston visiting some of his favorites. This is an excerpt from his novel, The Secret Oral Teachings of the Sacred Walking Blues:

The Ice House, which really did sell ice, but mostly sold ice-cold beer, cigarettes and soda water, was situated on a wedge of ground formed by the "x" of two dirt roads pretentiously called Hedges Street and Gevers Boulevard. This Ice House was not an actual house of ice but a tin shed cobbled together from the salvaged pressed tin ceiling panels of the Good Samaritan Colored Hospital torn down in 1948.

These were big tabletop-sized pieces of tin embossed with olive branch borders surrounding a central thistle bloom. Many of them were decorated with big cloudy stains caused when long-ago storms leaked through. These panels had been banged together on a skeleton of two-by-fours, and were decorated by colorful tin and porcelain advertising signs for Nehi, grapes, Lone Star, Pearl and Chesterfield Kings.

The resulting shed was topped by a roof of rusty corrugated tin, which hung out over the front, by several feet. This overhang was supported at its corners by stout posts made from sawed-off telephone poles. It gave the front of the place the look of a funky trading post, which in a way, it was.

Behind the little building and beside the outside toilet (which was not an outhouse, but a cabinet made of plywood packing crates built around a single, seatless commode) there grew an ancient mesquite tree. Although most mesquites grow squat and spread out like gnarled and signifying hands, this one had tapped into a deep spring, which fed it till it had grown twice the normal height. It had grown tall and twisty like a monster bonsai slanting lazily to shade the little shed from the furnace blast of mid-day mid-year mid century San Antonio Texas afternoons.

At times, groups of men gathered here to play cards, or loudly click dominoes and shout. Other times a lone man and his guitar and Kindhearted Woman and Have You Ever been Mistreated and sometime all of this at once plus me nine-years-old drinking Nehi grape and pineapple Hippo soda water. That time year day hour had frozen in amber suspended in the murmur of guitar strings trembling forever unresolved. Yeah. Secret."

Chilled Watermelon , 7-Elevens, Big Gulps and Slurpees

In the 1860s, there were three ice-manufacturing plants in San Antonio and only five others in the United States. By 1928, Southland Ice (later Southland Corp, now 7-Eleven Inc.) operated twelve ice plants and twenty retail ice docks in Dallas and San Antonio.

After one store placed a souvenir totem pole at its entrance, Southland stores came to be known as "Tote'm Stores," since customers toted away their purchases. They pioneered the practice of conveniently locating ice pickup stations in neighborhoods and by first selling chilled watermelon, then groceries and other items along with block ice — helping to launch the convenience–store concept.

The difference between the icehouse and the icehouse-turned-modern-convenience-store is this, as one man said: " A Stop & Go is just that. This is a stop and stay. You put down anchors here."

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The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.