THURSDAY JULY 21, 1994-SEC. A-Page 7

Cooling off with the Community Ice Company


Taking a chunk of ice and carving out a Masterpiece is a skill John McPherson Jr. has developed over his years in the business.

McPherson Lugs a bag of Ice at the Community Ice Company's plant.

On the heels of the hottest June on record, and with July temperatures bubbling toward the tip of the thermometer, John McPherson Jr. is settling in for another banner day.

McPherson, 40, is vice president of the Community Ice Company on Belair Road in northeast Baltimore, the oldest family-owned ice plant in the metro area.  He’s also president of the subsidy AAA Emergency Ice Service, which promises ice and Dry Ice delivery anywhere from Pennsylvania to Virginia, 24 hours a day.

“We sell multi-purpose ice,” McPherson says with a smile. "Drinks, concrete and everything in between."

Inside a cramped and cluttered office that adjoins a 15,000-square-foot freezer and ice-manufacturing operation, the phone won't stop ringing.

A Genstar truck has rolled onto the tiny parking lot to add 400 pounds of crushed ice to an overheated concrete mix.

The crab house down the road just called. It needs ice in a hurry.

Bakeries and doughnut shops are placing orders for ice to help their dough rise.

And the Baltimore Zoo needs a few 300-pound blocks to cool the water in the polar bear exhibit.

All around town, things seem to be melting. McPherson is doing all he can to keep from actually rationing his inventory.

"I'm getting calls from my competitors wanting to buy ice, but I have to watch out for biting off more than I can chew,  “he says. "I'm as busy as this right up until New Year's."

For more than a month, the plant has operated nonstop to meet a demand for 75 tons of ice per day, which should provide a profitable annual average of 30 tons per day or $500,000 in annual gross sales.

In the ice business, your entire year depends on how you do between May and September.

"If we have a cool summer, we're gonna have a problem in winter," says McPherson, who lives right up the road in Rosedale. "A lot of times in winter, our sales don't meet our overhead costs."

On the roof, four turbo ice-manufacturing machines have been running nonstop, seven days a week. Each day, 48 tons of ice slides down a shaft to be bagged and stacked on pallets in a room where the temperature stays at 14 degrees.

The company also buys about 27 tons of ice each day from another ice plant in Hanover Pa., which manufactures the 300-pound blocks.

A brief "cold spell" over the last few days of June gave the plant a breather so that it could gear up for the Fourth of July holiday, the biggest weekend of the year in the ice business.

"We had 400 customers come through here on July 4th," says McPherson's father, Kingsville resident John Sr., the 70-year-old president of the company.

When you're speeding $7,000 a month on electricity to freeze more than 21,000 gallons of water per day, these are the kinds of days you pray for.

 A family for all ice ages

It wasn't always this way, according to John Sr., who took over when his father-in-law, William Huber, died in 1972 at age 82.

Although the business grossed $40,000 that year, it was still on the rebound after almost 20 years of operating in or very near the red.

"When people started getting refrigerators in their homes, this business slowed Up," John Jr. says. "From the mid-1940s to the late 1960s, business was so slow, this was more or less a hobby for my grandfather.

"It was his baby, though. No matter what it cost him, he would keep it running."

It was a baby born 1921 when William Huber and his brother Eli built the facility where the business still sits.  They started selling ice and coal from horse-drawn wagons.

Massive chunks were cut from the Susquehanna river during the winter and stored underground, covered with straw until summer.  Daily sales reached 160 tons.

In 1929, Eli went to Glen Burnie to open an ice plant. Meanwhile, William, a ship captain in the merchant marines until age 75, invested in the technology to start making his own ice.

The coal side of the business was eventually dropped. And when refrigeration units started appearing in homes in 1946, William found it more economical to buy ice wholesale than to make his own.

While other ice plants, like Rittenhouse on "Joppa Road, shifted their operation over to fuel oil, Huber kept his cool.

According to John Sr., there were periods in the 1950s when the Community Ice Company was actually costing William Huber about $2,000 a year.

Then, the new ice age began.

"The Baby Boomers started having parties," John Sr. says.

A year after taking over-after working part-time at the ice plant while selling insurance full time --John Sr. managed to double the company's gross sales.

"When I took over, it was picking up a little bit," John Sr. says. "I made some changes over the years, always reinvesting. The first thing I did was change the refrigeration around and re-insulate the building."

In 1972, John Sr. also purchased some ice-manufacturing equipment. The company started making its own ice for the first time since 1944.

Expanding opportunities

Business was good during the ‘70s, but the final push came in 1980 with the opening of Harbor place downtown.

Although the company had gotten out of the ice delivery business decades earlier
John Jr., on a whim, filled the bed of a pickup with ice and went down to see if any of the new vendors might be running low.

"They had all these people coming down for the grand opening and their little ice machines couldn't keep up with the demand," says John Jr., recalling the beginning of AAA Emergency Ice Service. "I credit (then) Mayor William Donald Schaefer (who helped guide the harbor development) for making this business what it is right now."

These days, the business boasts four delivery trucks and employs 10 people. Half its sales happen right at the loading dock, where John Sr. claims prices are about 50% below the average convenience store. A large chunk of the business is committed to corporate functions, parties, anniversaries and especially emergencies such as power outages.

And, because John Jr. has always considered himself more of an artist than an ice man, an ice-sculpting service is also available.

After studying under renowned ice carver Vivat Hong Pong, who has worked in Atlantic City for Donald Trump, John Jr. starting hacking away on his own.

"I just started carving little chunks," he says. "Of course, I've got a whole ice house to practice on."

It took him about three years to perfect the craft, but John Jr. has been sculpting for real money for the past eight years.

Everything and anything, he says, can be carved from ice — from the replica of a car for a television commercial to a Pegasus horse for an anniversary party, or even a giant set of lips for a Rolling Stones reunion.

"I've always had that creative end," John Jr. says, flipping through his ice-sculpting portfolio, "This is something to do instead of just humping ice all day.”

Now John Jr. ponders which of his five children will be interested in taking over the business.

There’s no hurry, according to John Sr. who plans to keep right on reinvesting his profits in preparation for another chilly day.