The Ice Man

John McPherson keeps the family business going, even when it's warmer outside.

January 22, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

John McPherson IV stepped out of his workplace and into the brisk afternoon air, basking in it like a cat in a sunbeam.

It was nearing 25 degrees outside -- downright balmy, at least if you work in an icehouse.

McPherson does, and has since he was 10.

"On days like today, it's actually warmer outside than it is in our storage and packing rooms," said the owner of AAA Ice Co., a family-owned business that has been providing ice to Marylanders since 1921, when McPherson's grandfather used horse-drawn wagons to haul chunks of it to Baltimore from the Susquehanna River.

Back then the ice was covered in straw and stored in the basement of the icehouse before it was delivered, in block form, to homes in and around Baltimore.

Today, it is manufactured, cracked, packaged and stored in the same Belair Road icehouse built by his grandfather, now equipped with sophisticated ice-making machinery and refrigerated rooms where the temperature hovers around 15 degrees.

"In the summer, you walk in and it feels pleasant, like super air conditioning," McPherson said yesterday. "This time of year, you just start chattering, and with the fans blowing, you almost have a wind chill. It can really rattle your bones."

The company employs about a dozen workers -- twice as many in the summer. Workers are advised to wear layers (at least four), hats and gloves, and to take a 10-minute break from the icy temperatures every half hour.

Winter is the slow time in the ice business -- production drops to only three days a week -- and McPherson uses the lull to keep up with maintenance on the company's machinery and its fleet of nine trucks.

"We kind of look forward to this time of year. In the summertime, with the high demand, it's chaotic. People are in and out, in and out."

Winter also allows McPherson more time for ice sculpture, which he took up about 15 years ago. Since then, ice sculptures made by him and his partner have appeared -- briefly, for they usually melt within five hours -- at President Clinton's inauguration and parties thrown by Mike Tyson (a sculpture of a boxer) and the Rolling Stones (a giant set of lips).

McPherson's ice companies -- actually there are two, Community Ice Co. and AAA Ice Co. -- have also done work for about 10 movie productions, most recently Ladder 49, a Disney movie featuring John Travolta. Filmed last summer, the movie is set in Baltimore in winter, and McPherson supplied the snow, grinding and spraying more than 20 tractor trailer loads of ice.

McPherson first went to work for his grandfather at Community Ice in 1963. For $3 a day -- plus lunch -- he would scoop crushed ice into paper bags.

The company began making its own ice around 1930 but stopped in the mid-1940s when refrigerators began appearing in homes. In the 1950s, the company continued distributing ice it purchased wholesale, but it was often losing money. Despite that, McPherson's grandfather, company founder William Huber, kept it running.

In 1972, the demand for bagged ice picked up, and Community Ice returned to the ice-making business. In 1980 it began delivering ice again, through a second company, AAA Ice Co.

McPherson was working several other jobs, including as a free-lance TV cameraman, but continued to keep a hand in the family business. By 1980, he was making $3.50 an hour there.

When Harbor Place opened that year, he bought a used pickup truck, filled it with bags of ice and hauled it to the harbor to sell to vendors, handing out business cards for his new company along the way.

By the time he got back to the plant, 60 more orders had been called in, he said.

With the increase in tourism, the ice business took off. "It was kind of like a jump start," said McPherson, who became head of Community Ice in 1997, after the death of his father.

The company produces 40 tons of ice a day, selling it to bars and restaurants, construction crews who use it to cool concrete mixtures in the summer, bakers who use it to help dough rise, prisons and hospitals, baseball and football stadiums, even the Baltimore Zoo when it needed to cool the water in the polar bear exhibit.

In the summer, despite being busy, the icehouse is a more pleasant place to be, McPherson said.

People stop in off the street during hot spells and ask if they can step into the storage room to cool off; neighborhood children show up in hopes of getting tossed a piece of ice; and when the doors to the storage room open, he said, "the cold just rolls out on the loading platform. You can see it, it's a smoky color."

In winter, there are fewer visitors, fewer employees and going to work means coming in from the cold and stepping into the even colder.

"It's not too bad as long as you keep moving," McPherson said. "It actually affects you more if you're just standing still. If you're just standing ... monitoring a piece of equipment, you tend to get a lot colder."

It varies, he says, from person to person.

"We have had a handful of employees who couldn't get used to the cold. Some people have hats and scarves and gloves and they're still freezing. Some just put on an extra shirt and they're fine. I don't know what it is. Thicker blood? Thicker skin? Some people just aren't cut out for the cold."

McPherson, who turned 50 today, admits his fingers and ears can be sensitive to the cold, but he generally prefers coolness to warmth. He likes to sleep -- even in winter -- with a window cracked and a fan on. His wife, who tells him he has "rhino skin," prefers the warmth.

"I just got back from vacation," he said. "People were saying you have to bundle up because Baltimore is 20 degrees. I say, `It doesn't bother me. I work in the ice business.'"

And where did the iceman go on vacation?

The Cayman Islands.

"When I vacation, I like to vacation warm."

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