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August 10, 2013

A cool new business came to Oneonta in 1932

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The Daily Star

---- — If July of 1932 was as hot as it was at times last month, local residents were finding as many ways possible to escape the heat. One unusual way of finding temporary relief 81 years ago was by attending an open house at the newly opened Stewart Ice plant, once found at today’s vacant 45 Valleyview St. in Oneonta.

“Stewart Ice, Inc., which has been operating since June 5, Oneonta’s newest industry, will hold open house Saturday and Sunday,” it was reported in The Oneonta Daily Star of Friday, July 15, 1932. “While many residents of Oneonta and vicinity have now and then visited the plant, it has not been generally known that this privilege is extended to all.” Personally conducted tours were promised, to show how “artificial” ice was made.

“To the average man in the street,” it was reported, “artificial ice is something that is made with ammonia, brine and water. However, this is a false impression, as the ice is neither artificial, nor does the ammonia or brine enter the water. It is merely pure water that has been frozen.” The ammonia and brine helped to freeze the water in the process, aided by power.

“The power for this plant is supplied by a 140 horsepower Fairbanks-Morse Diesel engine, which burns furnace oil. This supplies electric power through a generator in sufficient quantities for the lights and many motors which are used. This huge Diesel engine, which weighs about 10 tons, has a flywheel, which alone weighs three tons.”

The new plant was able to make about 35 tons of ice per day, and each block of ice produced was about 325 pounds, then split into 25- and 50-pound quantities for home or business delivery, or purchase at the plant. The entire freezing process took about 27 hours to complete.

At this open house, probably the biggest attraction during the offered tours was to step inside the ice storehouse for a few moments to take in the 27-degree temperature. While temperatures were reported to be in the 80s both days, no attendance figure was published.

Stewart Ice was headed by James W. Stewart, president, and Willis D. Sweet, vice president and treasurer. There were 11 other employees, all wearing white uniforms.

“One feature of the ice delivery service is that in making a delivery to a customer, the ice is carried in a canvas bag, thus eliminating the dripping water, which formerly irked many housewives. Deliveries are made everyday, including holidays, except Sunday. Outside villages are also served. Ice may be secured at the plant 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” The Stewart Ice telephone number was 9.

Stewart’s had an interesting cross-promotion to become better known in the community. An advertisement on Aug. 3 from J.C. Penney, then found at 265-267 Main St. called on residents to see an all-wool blanket frozen in ice. The blanket was frozen inside one of those 325-pound blocks from Stewart’s.

“Get out your pencils and figure carefully the number of hours, minutes and seconds required to melt the 325 pound block of ice frozen around a Penney All Wool Blanket,” the ad read. It didn’t mention if there was a prize for the closest guess, but the ice was placed in a Penney’s window at 10 a.m. that day, and most likely got a good following during the reported 62 hours, 10 minutes and four seconds of melting time.

James Stewart left the business to serve in World War II, serving in Australia with the British-American Ambulance Corps, and later with the American Red Cross. He married an Australian woman and continued to live there after the war, passing away in 1958. William and David Stewart were listed in street directories as company officers after James parted for Australia.

Stewart Ice was a fairly short-lived industry, closing around 1953 as technology shifted away from the traditional icebox to electric refrigerators. As for 45 Valleyview St., the building was purchased in the mid-1950s by my father and his two brothers. Simonson Brothers Inc. was a frozen food and ice cream distributor, using the old ammonia cooling system at first. I can vividly remember some much smaller but nevertheless noisy machinery in the back of the building to keep that big frozen storage room cold. Having had a few summers of youth employment at the business, walking inside that freezer was a joy on some hot July and August afternoons.

My father and uncles retired from the frozen food and other businesses they’d ventured into at 45 Valleyview St., selling the property in the early 1990s.

On Monday: 50 years of improving Canadarago Lake.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.