Earl Schultz – “The Ice Man” – is a U.S. Army Veteran, retired Owner/Operator of City Ice Company, former Board of Trustees for the Rock County Historical Society, and former President of the Great Lakes Ice Association.
Where were you born?
I was born in Watertown, Wisconsin. My dad had started the ice business in 1939. So, I was born not with a silver spoon, but with ice in my mouth. He was an ice man up there for a while, and they harvested ice from the river up there. I remember riding with my dad in the truck when I was just a toddler, very little. We came in to Janesville in 1954.
How did your family get into the ice business in Janesville?
This ice company first belonged to the Atwood family. They were a very prominent family in the community, on the City Council, development and were very involved. They even have a street named after them, Atwood Avenue. They owned additional ice houses around Janesville, including an ice house built in 1911 at Goose Island, now known as Traxler Park. Those ice houses are now long gone.
The company ventured into wood and coal sales, but ice remained the mainstay. Eventually, the company was sold to the Schultz family when my father bought it in 1954. I started working in the business as a boy.
Back in Colonial days, plantation owners would store their ice in the ice houses or in the ground storage in summer. As the saying went, “The wealthy got ice all year round, but the poor only had ice in the winter time.”
Originally, here in Janesville, block ice was harvested out of the Rock River and delivered by horse drawn wagons. The last ice harvest was in 1929. The ice couldn’t be harvested today like it was back then, with sanitation regulations, all the dangers and pollutants in the river.
It was truly dangerous work. People would fall into the river, horses would fall in sometimes. If they could get the horse out, they’d give it some brandy to warm him up. The guys would fall in, too, but some of them probably faked it just so they could get some brandy, especially during prohibition! The ice picks were dangerous, too. These days, with OSHA and all, you couldn’t do that kind of work, or even walk around with sharp tools like that.
We had to work hard in this business, loading ice into the trucks and even loading ice down at the railroads. We’d climb up on the train cars, the meat cars, and sometimes it would be in the middle of summer and really hot, over one hundred degrees! Then we’d have to throw ice down into the cars and cover them with salt for the meat to be kept cold.
We weren’t the only ice company in the area. Sometimes they came and went, and there was some competition. But, the Ice Man was in demand because the businesses depended on ice; grocery stores, meat packers, the milk trucks, taverns and all. We also used to have “fish trucks” come to us for ice. They had live fish in the trucks! We used to load blocks of ice in to keep the fish fresh.
I think that by the time I was 21, I went to more taverns than anybody, but I drank less than anybody in town!
We delivered as far as Lake Geneva, Brodhead, Jefferson, to ice sculptors at Lake Lawn, to camp grounds, weddings, grad parties, to the General Motors plant, the Rock County 4-H Fair, the Corn Roast, Rock Aqua Jays events, the Baraboo Circus Train, etc. We delivered all over! It was quite a wide area.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Washington School, and then to Marshall Junior High. I graduated from Janesville High School, which was before Parker and Craig were built. I was a Bluebird.
What were your ambitions after high school?
I wanted to become a history or math teacher. When I went to college, I ended up changing my major to Business. For undergrad, I went to Milton College and received my Business degree and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Then, (jokes), I like to say I got my Doctor of Iceology degree from the University of Iceland in 1977!
Tell me about your military service.
I was in the U.S. Army during Vietnam. I entered in 1966 and served for six years, but I never left The States. I was in Fort Jackson, South Carolina and then in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I wasn’t gone all six years. I was in the Army Reserve so that I could come back and work here.
When did you take over the company?
I joined as a partner in my father’s business in 1973, and then assumed full ownership in 1989.
Can you give us a “virtual tour” of the buildings that still stand?
The Main Office
The office for City Ice used to be in the People’s Drug Store down on the corner of Main St. and Milwaukee. But the ice house itself has been at this location since 1858. It’s always been the same place selling ice products all these years.
The office is pretty much what it was back then, we haven’t changed the furniture, we still have the old 1920’s-era typewriter, the adding machine, the old telephones. We even have the old cash register we had back then. It’s a wooden drawer built into the counter that pulls out with carved out spaces for quarters, nickels and dimes and another spot for dollar bills. All of the office equipment still works! We also have the large safe we used all those years.
People tried to break into it a few times, but there’s nothing in it now.
The Room Next to the Office
We have all the old ice tools and various artifacts, even a few iceboxes. In 1972, there was one woman who still used an old icebox and we would deliver to her.
We still have tools that were used to cut the ice on the river as well as tools that were used on the ice wagon or the ice truck, like saws for cutting, tongs to grab the large chunks of ice, tools to measure off the pieces that would go in the iceboxes, scales that weighed the ice and scrapers that would scrape off ice for making crushed ice. We also have a large chain that would be thrown down on the ground where the wagon would stop. It would hold the horses there because of its weight, much like an anchor for a ship.
On the wall we have all the large bags that carried the ice into the homes. When we sold ice to the taverns, they would deliver it in canvas bags. How sanitary is that? And they would use them over and over again and then hang them up and the ice house. We would carry block ice in the bigger bags and crushed ice or cubes in the smaller bags.
We also used paper bags back in the fifties and sixties to put the ice in, but then switched to plastic bags. The ice in those bags was sold to the gas stations and convenience stores.
There’s an interesting cast iron piece, a hand cranking ice crusher, that was used up at the Monterey Hotel. They didn’t have ice machines back then. They’d throw a block of ice in there and then crank it out. It probably dates back to the 1920’s.
We have a circus poster from when we sold ice to the circus in 1969, the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus. I have some pictures from the circus. We even have sheet music of songs that were about the Ice Man.
In the warehouse we used ammonia refrigeration. The pipes along the ceiling would get frosty and keep the whole place cold. We have all the old tools in the warehouse along the wall.
In one of the walls, connected to the porch, is an automatic ice vending machine where you could dispense cubes and blocks of ice. People could come up when the place was closed, put their money in, and receive ice. But, we had to close access to that machine because once someone tried to shove a little child up there to steal a bag of ice. That became a liability
I remember once we were working here in the ice warehouse late at night and someone came up and put money in the machine. So, I opened the door and handed him his bag of ice. He was surprised because he had expected it to come out of the chute!
In the shed we still have some of the wagons we used back when the horses pulled the ice wagons for deliveries. We also sold coal and soda, but we always sold ice. Then, after the boom in auto manufacturing, we switched to trucks, of course. I still have the delivery truck I learned to drive as a teen.
We have the company pick-up trucks with “The Ice Man Cometh” on the side.
An old joke goes like this: If the Ice Man weighed 200 pounds in the front of the wagon, what did he weigh in the back? The ice, of course!
What were some interesting experiences you had growing up in the business?
Something that had a profound effect on me and my brother was how my dad treated strangers. Janesville, back in the 1950’s, was lily-white, only a couple of black families in town. Sometimes some black folks would come up on the weekends from Chicago, and my dad let them fish in the river behind the ice house. They’d come up on Friday, fish until Sunday night, and then go home.
They couldn’t stay at any hotels in Janesville back then because of discrimination, so my dad let them stay in the back, and they’d come up to use our bathroom. We would invite them to eat with us. We’d fish with them, we drank with them.
One time, I went with one of these black friends to the corner store to get baseball cards on our bikes, and I distinctly remember the reaction on the store lady’s face when she saw us. She looked at him, then looked at me. I still see the expression on her face and she asked me, “Earl? Who’s your friend here?” It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what that was all about, that it just wasn’t “normal” in her view.
Those experiences really shaped my brother’s and my view of minorities. It opened our minds to see these minorities weren’t really any different from us. Most people in Janesville were never exposed to others like that. We were kids, and we’d play ball with these visitors, and everything. We saw them as regular people, just like anyone. We got to know them and exchanged Christmas cards with the families, too.
Even before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached to not judge people by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, we were already doing that. So, when my brother became a probation officer, he was the first to hire a black man.
Tell me about your employees.
We’ve had a lot of great employees, and I remember them all. Some of them still come back and visit. One of them went to Vietnam and earned five bronze stars. He’ll never talk about it. Then he went to Harvard Law School. They all found outstanding jobs; pharmacists, teachers, GM execs.
We were particular about who we hired. I used to tell them the old Shakespeare phrase, “If you lose your honor, you lose yourself.” They all thought they weren’t going to make it working here. We started work at 3:30 in the morning and would end at 6 or 7 at night all week long, except for Sundays, which ended a little earlier. But, they quickly found out they couldn’t run around at night! They’d earn good money, though, and save it for college.
My nephews, James Schultz and his brother Edward Schultz III, worked for me, too. Like me, they started by riding along in the truck when they were just kids. Jim joined me in sales, distribution and management of the City Ice Co. until its sale in 2013. He’s also into collecting old historic signs, antiques and things, just like me. Following in my footsteps, Jim is currently serving on the Board of Trustees for the Rock County Historical Society.
Ed worked full-time for me until we sold out, and then kept him on for a year after that. He’s teaching music now at Knapton Musik Knotes.
Tell me about the disasters the business survived.
In 1975, some 13-year-old kid set fire to the two big warehouses and then we tore them down. They caught the boy, but really didn’t do anything to him. I saved one of the burnt boards because it has some initials and 1891 carved into it. That hangs in the front office. The board is from the original warehouse. That was probably our worst disaster, since it could have ruined the business entirely.
In 2008, when the Rock River flooded, we had to move out of here. We watched the water creep up closer and closer, and finally we moved over to Traxler Park with refrigerated semi-trailers and worked out of those. We had to go, because we couldn’t access the business here on Main Street with the water too high. The entire Main Street was covered here!
We could get into the office, but otherwise, not the other buildings. We had to transfer the phone to the house to take calls because there was no one here to take them.
Some of the ice boxes that were used for special events floated out and into the river! The LP Tree Service guy retrieved one of the boxes stuck by the bridge in the river.
All the business we had at the dock, selling ice for special events, weddings, graduation parties … we lost it all!
Do you have any exciting Ice Man delivery stories?
On one of my deliveries, back in the 1960s, I was delivering ice to Bob’s Beverage Liquor Store down in Beloit. I unknowingly walked in on an armed robbery. When I came in, the guy hid his gun in his trench coat, then ran right past me. All that was in the drawer was $35. He could have shot both of us on the way out the door!
Another year, I was delivering ice with my nephew Jim and his friend. We were heading to Stoughton and stopped at a convenience store off the interstate to see if they needed any ice. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon. The manager said she didn’t need any ice, so we joked with her for a few minutes and then got back in the truck and took off to Stoughton. Her name was Barbara Nelson.
About 15 minutes or so after we’d been there, she was kidnapped! They found her dead body, nude, lying somewhere over by Elkhorn. They never found who committed the murder. Jim had remembered seeing someone fixing a vehicle outside the store … so that was an interesting experience! The question is, how many times in your life are you just moments away from something big like that?
The Ice Man always had a kind of reputation for doing a little more than ice delivery when he stopped at the homes during the day, while the husbands were gone to work. Back in the 1940’s an ice delivery man was having an affair with a woman on the west side of Janesville, and he was murdered by the husband!
When I was just a kid, the murderer, who had served his time, returned to town and opened an Italian restaurant. I went along to deliver ice there and was pretty scared because now I was the ‘Ice Man’! That was always in the back of my mind, the lesson learned from that incident. (The details of this story will be featured in “The Tales of Downtown,” an original play, Sept. 13-15, 2018 at the Janesville Performing Arts Center.)
Tell me about all the presidents connected to the ice business.
Presidents Washington, Madison, Monroe were all connected to the ice business in some way or another. President Grant tried to sell ice all the way from Oregon to California, but then lost it all. President Polk put the first ice box in the White House. Eisenhower worked for an ice company, as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt, before his polio. Ronald Reagan nearly lost his life going after some ice in the summer. He lived across from a train station, and he and his brother saw the Ice Man by the station. So, they crawled under a train just before it started to pull out! That might have been Divine intervention.
When Paul Ryan came down here to tour with his kids, I told him that maybe the path to the White House was to work in the ice business first!
Tell me about your community involvement.
At one time I was the President of the Great Lakes Ice Association. As far as local activities, I was on the Board for the Rock County Historical Society for about nine years, served as Treasurer, was involved in the Chamber of Commerce and am a member of Forward Janesville. I’ve been involved in Leisure Services for the City of Janesville on a committee there and on committees at First Lutheran Church.
I’ve belonged to the International Packaged Ice Association for many years, too.
What are some changes you’ve seen in the community over time?
We used to have railroad tracks run right by here on Main Street, and the Badger sports teams would ride through and wave at us. Also, we used to have a lot of coal yards around town. We used to buy coal from them.
I’ve seen a number of businesses that have come and gone. All the milk companies, Shurtleff’s, Arbuthnot and Milk Jug Dairy, they’re gone, too. And I remember the neighborhoods would have little grocery stores where we’d go to buy baseball cards.
We used to go to the Jeffris Theater. We would walk along the river looking for empty Pepsi bottles. We’d get 3 cents a bottle for returning them. It only cost like 12 or 15 cents to go to the movies, so we’d save up the bottle money and that’s how we’d go!
When did you close the company?
We closed the ice business in April of 2013. I’ve been in the business all my life, except for when I was in the service. I’m still licensed and I could go back into it if I wanted to. But I won’t.
Currently, I maintain the buildings and grounds, the historical value and essence of the property. This place really should become a City Ice Company museum. Hopefully someday.
Tell me about your travels.
In 2006, we traveled to Israel and Jordan with Pastor Melvin from our church. We went with a great group of about 20 people. The second time we went back was in 2010 on an Israel/Egypt tour. There were 30 in our group that time.
It was such a spiritual journey! My favorite experiences in Israel were seeing the Western Wall in Jerusalem and climbing Mt. Sinai and seeing the sunrise … to see God’s creation out there.
In 2012 we went on a mission trip with First Lutheran to help the flood victims in South Dakota.
Tell me a bit about your wife.
My wife, Gwen, is from Edgerton. She graduated when she was 17, didn’t have money for college so started working in a business office. She worked her way up to become manager! You couldn’t do that today. Eventually, she went back to school and got a degree in theology and now she’s a minister. Her goal now is to save ME!
What would you like to do now that you are retired?
I’d like to do some more traveling. My goal is to see every state capital in the United States. I’ve been to quite a lot by now, most states already. Then, I’d like to visit all the presidential burial sites and all the presidential libraries. I’ve always been a history buff.
We would also like to go back to Israel again.
What do you love about Rock County?
What I like is that it’s big enough for corporate, professional services, but small enough to find an electrician or someone we know. If we want to go to a large sporting event, we can go to Chicago, Madison or Milwaukee pretty quickly. We’re like the center of a wheel with the spokes going out to these other communities.
Do you plan to stay?
Oh yes! I’ll stay to the end. My next home will be a condo at Oakhill Cemetery. I think I’d like to have “The Iceman Cometh” written on my tombstone.
We got married, bought the house on Centerway, and we’ve been there for 40 years and we’re not planning to move. We know a lot of people here, know the area and the streets. It’s home.
We’ve traveled all over, but there’s no place like home.