Puritan Ice Co. of Santa Barbara, in business from 1922 until 1986, transformed Santa Barbara County. Literally transformed it. The company single-handedly opened the Santa Maria and Lompoc valleys to marketable fresh produce, and went into the agricultural business itself to ensure its ice manufacturing plants would steadily plunk out 300-pound cubes of ice. The company overturned the domestic ice market in the county also.
Then Puritan Ice went on to transform Atascadero. And it was in on the agricultural launch of Oxnard. Then the company traveled to the Palo Verde Valley, where Blythe is the big town, and where it had an impact on the U.S. war effort during World War II, and greatly expanded agriculture in that valley.
Then ... well, the story of this surprising, and largely silent, company in Santa Barbara continued.
I wrote a history of the company, and at 11 a.m. on Nov. 13, I 'll be giving a talk about the mighty and influential Puritan Ice Co. at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. But the story behind the story is nearly as interesting, and certainly more current.
In early 2009, John Fritsche of Santa Barbara contacted me to assist with an interview on a project he’d undertaken.
Fritsche is interested in what makes — or more precisely, what made — Santa Barbara tick. He collects historic Santa Barbara postcards and delves into questions of technological development in the area. Recent projects have included the Loughhead (Lockheed) and Northrup aerospace firms’ early roots in Santa Barbara, the early Airway Traffic Control Stations for keeping aircraft safely separated as they moved between airports, and the mysterious shelling of a Southern Pacific train passing through Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base) in May 1944.
His interest in Puritan Ice arose when Ken Kelley of Santa Ynez, an avid model train collector and builder of scale railroad stations and fixtures, contacted him to request images of portions of the Santa Barbara rail yards as they once appeared. Kelley was building out a model of the rail yards circa 1940.
The Santa Barbara train station on Lower State Street, now a momentary gathering spot for travelers awaiting trains, used to be the center of a thriving and complex hub. The station anchored a rail yard chock-full of maintenance, storage, packing, loading, icing and security facilities. Rail lines split off like snakes through the grass and sidled up to blank-sided buildings where flour was milled, vegetables and fruits were packed, meat butchered, ice chopped and loaded, and train dicks — the security force of the Southern Pacific — walked the lines to try to make sure no one was riding for free.
The train station remains where it was then. But the business end of the rail business in Santa Barbara stretched east, across State Street, and continuously all the way to lower Milpas Street. There were more than a dozen buildings in that strip of land dedicated to the rail business, and they covered a square mile or more. Kelley was thinking of recreating a significant portion of the entire rail yard, not just the station and Railway Express buildings.
All he was after at first was a picture of the roundhouse.
Fritsche was a good bet to have ready access to such an image. He has lived in Santa Barbara for 55 years and sees the community like a geologist might see the folded and toppled mountains above it.
Just as the geologist can touch a pale outcropping and describe an ocean floor laid down a thousand miles out to sea a hundred million years ago, then freighted here by unimaginably patient forces, Fritsche can look at a building festooned with signs for a software firm or a restaurant with a tilted cocktail glass on its sign and see the bones beneath of a flour mill or a motor court from a century past, and all the politics and businesses in between.
Sure enough, Fritsche had pictures of the roundhouse. He also had a story.
The Southern Pacific Roundhouse
The Southern Pacific Railroad’s roundhouse might have disappeared into history without pictures had it not been partially destroyed in the 1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake. The original roundhouse, located where Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort now stands — the large open rotunda at the front of the building is meant to commemorate the old roundhouse — had been described as "the ugliest building in Santa Barbara." It was a large, squared-off wooden shed, with a deep U cut in one side where a rail turnstile led to a series of tall wooden doors. Train engines entered the facility on a spur from the west, stopped on the turnstile, and were spun until they could roll into one of five maintenance bays.
Roundhouses, placed strategically along every major rail line in the country, were stocked with spare steam engines. The use of coal, the heavy manual operations required to run the engines, and the design of the engines themselves resulted in frequent breakdowns. The faltering engines were pulled aside when they reached a hub such as Santa Barbara and a fresh engine hooked up, much like horses on the Pony Express. The engine in need of repair would be rolled into a stall in the roundhouse and the work would begin.
When one end of the Santa Barbara roundhouse crumbled in the earthquake, it received a photographer’s momentary attention as one among the many fallen buildings. No prior photographs of the exterior are known to exist.
Just preceding the quake, and certainly afterward, Santa Barbara’s downtown was being reinvented as a Spanish Colonial offshoot, a propitious and massive overhaul that sits in Santa Barbara’s lineage like royalty in a bloodline.
But the waterfront was undergoing a makeover on an even grander scale. In 1925 when the quake hit, the waterfront was an extended zone of lumber and rail yards, warehouses and a bath house. Businesslike, but unsightly, wharves and rail spurs edged across the sand and over the water on wharves all the way to Salsipuedes Street. After the quake, the city passed a bond measure to purchase a large swath of the waterfront and showed an early desire to reshape it to a more attractive public resource. Santa Barbara’s Civic Arts Association’s Plans and Plantings Committee was the focal point of this effort.
When Southern Pacific came before Plans and Planting with its proposed building, it didn't look much different from the original. The new plans showed a squat, square, functional, and once again ugly, building. Plans and Plantings pushed the plans back across the table and told the powerful railroad to make the roundhouse conform to the new city building standards. According to contemporary reports, Southern Pacific’s response was, “How in blazes can you make a locomotive roundhouse look like anything but a locomotive roundhouse? There’s no way to disguise it.”
The story goes that committee member Pearl Chase pulled a picture postcard of a Spanish bullring from her papers and handed it to the railroad officials. As a result, the new roundhouse that rose up along the Santa Barbara waterfront looked quite different from the original.
Southern Pacific stopped using the roundhouse in the early 1950s as more reliable diesel engines took over from the steam engines. The roundhouse was sold and leased for warehouse space, with the last lease to U.S. Plywood, which maintained stores at the site until its demolition in 1982.
The next question Kelley asked of Fritsche was a little different. As his curiosity traveled along the old tracks in Santa Barbara, he wanted to know, “Do you have any pictures of the Puritan Ice Company? They iced the trains.”
Fritsche’s response was one of surprise. “I didn’t know there was a company in Santa Barbara that was icing the trains.”
Fritsche had earned a Master’s degree in agriculture but worked locally in the aerospace and defense industry. Retired now, his historic curiosity is fully engaged. He went looking for Kelley’s picture, but he also went looking for the rest of the story. In his research, he found the key that opened the agricultural lock on the Santa Maria and Lompoc valleys, and the frosty story of an ice monopoly in Santa Barbara at a time when ice was worth something.
His own curiosity piqued, Fritsche soon found photos of the old Santa Barbara ice plants on the Internet, and then located a former employee of Puritan Ice in Santa Barbara, Walter Docker.
He contacted Docker and set up an interview. But both Docker and Fritsche had hearing difficulties, so Fritsche wanted an auditory backup. I was asked to attend.
Putting out Feelers
Docker quickly confirmed not just the existence, but a thriving one, of the Puritan Ice Co. in Santa Barbara. There was also a plant from the very beginning of the company’s launch at Guadalupe.
He looked at the images Fritsche had found online. One was an interior with a frozen sea of ice blocks and three "ice rats"’ leaning on the rail, and Docker affirmed that yes, it was Puritan. But, he said, the plants in Santa Barbara and Guadalupe were very similar. Hard to tell which this was. The other image was of an exterior, and while it was labeled Santa Barbara online, Docker said it was not the Santa Barbara plant.
Following the interview with Docker, Fritsche went one direction and I went another. He followed up the doing-business-as filings with the State of California, and I delved into local directories to track down when the owners — Leon R. Phillips and Ted Dalzell — arrived in Santa Barbara and where they had lived and worked.
This model of Fritsche tracking down one set or category of information, and me following a different set of breadcrumbs, began to be a theme. We chased search terms in Google and news archives, contacted public offices, called historical societies and journalists. And we talked often, sometimes dismissing the other’s pursuits as irrelevant, and then found ourselves asking about them the next week because we’d converged. Again and again.
We wove the disparate research together over a spreadsheet of dates and events, and a slowly accumulating stock of images. But the Holy Grail, the missing element, was what Kelley had asked for in the first place: a photo of the Santa Barbara ice plant itself. And we couldn’t find one ...
Our research took us roughly along the path of Puritan’s development. From Santa Barbara to Guadalupe, then Lompoc, Atascadero, Oxnard and Blythe. But neither Fritsche nor I were able to travel to these locales and stay long enough to do the research needed. It would take the better part of a week, and probably more, to locate the deeds, the news accounts, find prior employees or people who remembered, and visit the sites.
So we made contact with the organizations and individuals who might know and might help.
In Guadalupe, the old Puritan plant was empty, but still standing. Fritsche and I traveled up and met with owner Rennie Pili, who had purchased the plant back in 1987 and operated it up into the 2000s. He had old photos of the plant, gave us a tour, and pointed us out into the community where we found additional resources. John Perry of Napa Auto Parts in Guadalupe, for instance, has an amazing collection of the old packing labels that flowed through the ice yard, and he willingly shared them with us.
In Lompoc, Fritsche contacted Karen Paaske of the Lompoc Historical Society. Paaske, too, drew a blank on an ice company in Lompoc, but asked around. She soon had us in touch with Violet Bottroff, who with her husband had purchased the ice plant site from Puritan in 1959. Bottroff was able to tell us definitively which buildings at the site were original to Puritan.
Paaske then began sending us a series of emails in which she typed out the entire text of upward of 20 articles on Puritan Ice as the company built the plant and went into production in Lompoc. Puritan purchased the land in 1927, but did nothing until starting construction in 1930. The Lompoc Record, thrilled to have any positive news in the bottom of the Great Depression, covered the plant closely for the next decade.
Atascadero came as a surprise to both Fritsche and me. It first cropped up as a location added to Puritan’s advertising in 1927, but it had no pulse on the Internet that we could find. Then we found an address, and using Google Street View, were able to drop ourselves directly in front of the location. There we saw the building that had been labeled the Santa Barbara plant on the Internet images. The old ice plant is now an auto shop, the rail spur beside it no more than an empty right-of-way.
As we dug into the story in Atascadero, we contacted Connie Pillsbury, a local writer and historian. She sounded interested, but then went quiet. Worried, we kept poking at her by email, and she responded by saying she had more things to look into. About the time we were ready to give up on getting details on Atascadero, we received a 100-plus page notebook from Pillsbury in the mail with copies of articles of incorporation, Atascadero News articles, maps and more.
The material detailed the creation of an ice plant, but also of the Puritan Poultry Co., the largest poultry ranch on the planet at the time, run by the best-known poultry expert on the West Coast, Ralph Barrows Easson.
Our last stop, another surprise, was Blythe. This site had no pulse on the Internet either, in part because the ice company that Puritan opened there was named Blythe Ice. (In fact, chasing down the numerous companies that Puritan created was a persistent effort in our research.)
But Blythe was one of the harder nuts to crack. We contacted Jeanette Hyduke, a local history expert and writer for the Palo Verde Valley Times. She got us in touch with former Puritan employees in the Grande family, but the specifics of the site remained hidden.
Like Santa Barbara, Blythe remains in the dark ages in regard to digital resources. The historic newspapers there, the Palo Verde Times, reside at the historical society in a disused and disorganized storage room. The pages are yellowed and fragmenting, whole volumes are missing, and from every volume, pages were also missing. But I drove down, got a tour of the old ice plant building from Hyduke’s granddaughter, Kathy Cusick, and, with Sylvia Summers of the Palo Verde Historical Museum & Society, I dug through the newspapers.
We had so much history by now, a company threaded through the critical years of agricultural development in Southern California, and yet we were still missing what we’d come to find: an image of the Santa Barbara ice plant.
Frustrated by the lack of an image, Fritsche and I contracted Santa Barbara architect Patrick Berg to take the as-built images and plans developed by the City of Santa Barbara when the building was demolished in 1991, and draw us a picture. For a long time, that was our only view of the plant.
At some point, a late one, I decided to ring the doorbell at the Phillips’ house on the Riviera in Santa Barbara. The home had been built by company founder Leon Phillips and his wife, Blanche, in the late 1920s. Phillips had passed away in 1958, his wife in 1962. Chances were slim that family retained the home.
When I knocked that summer afternoon, Connie Phillips, widow of Donald Phillips, second son of Leon and Blanche, answered the door and welcomed me in. In her photo albums, we found three images of Puritan in Santa Barbara — two very early of the plant before rail icing platforms were built and the company was making ends meet by distributing Hughes Ice Cream. The third later, with the icing platform barely discernable through the trees.
Connie Phillips also gave me the phone number of Bruce Phillips, son of Richard Phillips and grandson of Leon, and a circle closed. Bruce Phillips had posted the images of the old Puritan plants on the Internet and had been unsure about what they depicted. He thought they were of Santa Barbara since this had been the firm’s first and central plant. He was unaware that Puritan Ice had spread as widely as it had.
We’d found former employees, founding families, a wealth of news and official data, and some images. We found court documents and numerous references to subsidiary firms. We’d visited sites and other, functioning ice plants. We were blocked from seeing the company files, still in the hands of Puritan’s former law firm, by the other half of the founding families. Fritsche and I felt that we had done what we could. Using our shared spreadsheet, I set to writing.
Two years or so later, History Press published my book, The Puritan Ice Companies: The Ice Empire of California’s Central Coast. It was after publication, and through John Woodward of Santa Barbara, that we came across the best images to date of Puritan Ice in Santa Barbara. Woodward acquired a massive photo collection formerly belonging to Santa Barbara photographer and image collector Joel Conway, and in them he found a series depicting Puritan Ice’s celebratory opening day in 1922.
Because the History Press book is a black-and-white format, I created a series of web pages to better display the colorful images, but also the host of images that could not be included in the book.
For those who have read and enjoyed the book, I'm adding a chapter to the story next week. One reader of the book was Herb Dritz, former Puritan Leasing employee. He helped tease out this era and focus of the company in greater detail.
— Noozhawk contributing writer David Petry is a Santa Barbara historian and author of The Puritan Ice Companies: The Ice Empire of California’s Central Coast and The Best Last Place: A History of Santa Barbara Cemetery. He is giving a talk on the Puritan Ice Co. at 11 a.m. Nov. 13 at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 E. De la Guerra St. Click here for more information on the presentation. Follow him on Twitter: @david_petry.