BY JIM MERCIER
I have to assume that you are now wondering when we ever made refrigerators here in the Belle City. Well, if you think I meant modern refrigerators such as Frigidaires, Maytags, GE’s or Whirlpools (some of us may even remember Norges and Kelvinators), that wasn’t my intention. I was actually referring to what many of us remember as the “icebox.”
The term “refrigerator” was used many years ago to describe a device that lowers food-storage temperatures in order to reduce spoilage. Iceboxes were non-mechanical “refrigerators” which had hollow walls that were lined with tin or zinc and packed with various insulating materials. A compartment (located near the top of the unit), held a large block of ice, providing the coolant. Of course, one had to empty the “drip pan” (placed underneath the box) on a daily basis. When more ice was needed, you simply let the “iceman” know how many pounds you wanted (either 25, 50, 75 or 100). Ice was harvested during the winter months from local lakes, rivers, and ponds, and stored in “ice houses” until needed.
Iceboxes were made of wood, and were considered to be very attractive pieces of household furniture back then. However, in 1923, Frigidaire introduced the first self-contained electric refrigerator to the home, which eventually reduced demand for the old iceboxes. By the 1950s, about the only place to find them would be in antique shops (and on the old “Honeymooners” episodes, of course). So, how did Racine fit into all this? Enter the Racine Refrigerator Co.
The Racine Refrigerator Co. was established in 1879, with capital of $13,000. Their products included iceboxes for the home as well as commercial meat lockers and walk-in coolers for grocery stores, saloons, butcher shops, restaurants and institutional kitchens. Of course, these commercial products were all built-to-order, and some were of considerable size. For example, one of their catalogs describes a specific meat locker as being 12 feet long, and 16 feet wide, and weighing almost 8,000 pounds.
According to an article published about them way back in 1895, the company “is engaged in the manufacture of the celebrated dry air refrigerators, which have a large and increasing sale all over the country. The plant is equipped with the latest improved machinery, and the company is preparing to make a line of interior furnishings for offices and stores.” It’s interesting to note that in their first year of operation, only 50 refrigerators were manufactured. By 1890, however, over 3,000 were made.
Another article describing their meat lockers mentions that, “every person, or firm, using this cooling room, heartily endorses it, and the firm has the most enthusiastic testimonials from many persons and firms, prominent in the handling of fresh meats. In addition to these cooling rooms, a line of dairy goods, such as churns, creamers, and butter workers, ice chests, butcher blocks, kitchen safes (for storing food), kneading boards, and pastry cupboards are also manufactured.” As you can see, it wasn’t just refrigerators, as their name implies!
So, where were they located (just in case you were wondering)? Well, I counted four different locations in Racine throughout their 30-year tenure here. Their first factory was on Chestnut Street, just north of Hamilton, on Racine’s northside. Oh, by the way, Chestnut Street eventually became Frederick Street. By 1895, they moved to Howe Street, just north of Water Street. However, their factory was destroyed by fire the same year. Shortly after that, they moved to 1349 Clark St., which was just west of present-day Twin Disc. Finally, they relocated to Holborn St., just north of 18th Street. There they remained until 1909, when they moved once again (and for the final time) to Kenosha, changing their name to the United Refrigerator and Ice Machine Co. However, by 1914, the company went bankrupt, thus ending a rich history of refrigerator production.
Now, go ask your friends if they know where Chestnut Street is…
Jim Mercier is an avid collector of Racine historical memorabilia. Some of his collection is in the Racine Business Center’s Spirit of Racine Entrepreneur’s exhibit. You can contact him at email@example.com.