A 1927 duel between three ice companies fizzled when one got cold feet – Press Enterprise

Oh, what a year 1927 might have been.

Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic for the first time that year and Babe Ruth clobbered 60 home runs, both very big deals. But it’s disappointing to think they could have been equaled by the drama of the Great San Bernardino Ice Meltdown.

The once-in-a-lifetime ice duel nearly happened in July – picture two 300-pound blocks of ice in a melt-athon at high noon in the street in front of the Sun-Telegram newspaper office.

Spectators (especially those who enjoy watching paint dry) would have crowded sidewalks, rooting that their favorite ice floe would outlast the other under the hot sun. Local bookmakers would surely have had plenty of betting action on the big melt. You’d think newsreel coverage (a bit too early for ESPN) and souvenirs and T-shirt sales would be real possibilities.

But it just never went forward because one of the participants got cold feet. It would have been the high point of what local newspapers called the Ice War, a battle in summer-hot San Bernardino among three ice producers each trying to out-sell their opponents.

This was before the advent of electric refrigerators, a time when most homes had ice boxes to store food. These were kept cool by blocks of ice which were delivered to homes every couple of days.

Ice War in San Bernardino blew up in July 1927 with reports that the Mountain Water Ice Co. was low-balling its two opponents – San Bernardino Ice Delivery and Caldwell Ice Co. The two companies claimed the usual price for ice – 60 cents for 100 pounds delivered or 50 cents picked up in person – was being distorted by Mountain Water drivers, who offered that same price to their customers but delivered a lot more ice.

San Bernardino Ice Delivery panicked and said it would drop its price, reported the Sun-Telegram on July 21, followed the next day by Caldwell.

Confusing things was Charles Gabriel, of Mountain Water Ice, who pointed out he had not cut his prices, saying it was his independent drivers who were altering the state of affairs.

“This cutting is a move against us,” he told the Sun-Telegram on July 22.  “Our ice is better and easily worth more money.”

Ah, that provocative statement prompted one of his competitors to throw down a frozen gauntlet, challenging him to the icy duel.

David Caldwell, head of Caldwell Ice Co., proposed that he and Gabriel each put one of their 300-pound slabs of ice out in the noonday sun to determine which would last the longest. He put up $100 and challenged Gabriel to do the same, with the prize pool going to charity.

But Gabriel spoiling everything, continuing to maintain the Ice War wasn’t his firm’s fault and refusing to go forward with Caldwell’s challenge.

The last skirmish of the battle was Aug. 4, when Caldwell and San Bernardino both dropped their prices yet another 10 cents a hundredweight to spite Gabriel.

But that cooled things for the next 12 months, when finally an armistice ending the Ice War was reached. The combatants agreed to a set price, returning to 60 cents for 100 pounds delivered and 50 cents in person, starting Aug. 6, 1928.

“Ice-onomics” provided continuously lucrative incomes for icemen in San Bernardino over the years. Not surprisingly, similar ice skirmishes erupted at least four times in the past.

In 1904, a new company from Los Angeles came into San Bernardino hoping to get a piece of Home Ice and Cold Storage Co.’s ice delivery monopoly. In 1909, a Highland ice firm set off another ice battle by attempting to do the same.

A similar fight loomed among three companies in the summer of 1910, while in 1915, a San Francisco firm announced it was barging in on the incumbent San Bernardino firm.

Today, the iceman cometh (apologies to Eugene O’Neill) no more. Lower-cost refrigerators eventually ended bulk delivery of ice to homes by the end of World War II. Ice companies still exist to provide bagged ice to local stores, among other uses.

Historic tours

The Historical Society of Pomona Valley will offer tours of two of its historic sites, the Palomares Adobe, 491 E. Arrow Highway, Pomona, on Sunday, Aug. 20, and the Spadra Cemetery, 2850 Pomona Blvd., Pomona, on Sunday, Aug. 27.

Tickets must be purchased in advance at www.PomonaHistorical.org.

Information:  909-623-2198.

Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at joe.blackstock@gmail.com or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns of the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory.

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