Thursday, August 6, 2015

Keeping it Cool ~ The McCray Icebox

by Ramona K. Cecil

As we drift further into the dog days of summer and the temperature rises, I discover a deeper appreciation for my refrigerator. It’s hard to imagine having to plan meals around food that requires little or no refrigeration. I remember my grandmother using the expression “summer complaint” for any number of intestinal problems one might suffer during the summer months. A primary cause of these ailments was bacterial contamination of food due to a lack of refrigeration.

Before modern refrigeration, ice houses, spring houses, and cold cellars proved only marginally successful in preserving foods like meats and dairy during hot weather.

Spring House
Ice House

Cold Cellar

Enter Hiram and Elmer E. McCray, a father and son team of refrigeration pioneers in Kendallville, Indiana. A butter and egg merchant, Hiram needed a way to better preserve his inventory during the hot summer months. In 1882, the two received a patent for their invention of a cold storage room. Elmer continued to improve on his father’s patent, developing better refrigeration units for both residential and industrial use. By 1891, Elmer shifted entirely into the refrigeration business.

Hiram McCray
Elmer E. McCray

At his McCray Refrigeration factory in Kendallville, Elmer produced a wide array of iceboxes and cold storage units. In advertisements, the McCray company touted their icebox units lined with porcelain tile, opal glass, and odorless wood to be far safer and superior to other brands of iceboxes lined with zinc, which they warned could corrode, poisoning milk and food. Indeed, in his book Indiana: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Development, Charles Roll wrote that Elmer E. McCray had developed his and his father’s refrigeration patents “to such a point that he may rightfully be called the founder of modern sanitary refrigeration.”

McCray Icebox Circa 1890s
McCray Refrigeration Factory, Kendallville, Indiana


McCray refrigerator ad Cira 1900

The McCray Company remained in Kendallville, Indiana for almost eighty years until 1975, when it merged with Howard Refrigeration of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and moved to that city. Howard McCray remains a leading manufacturer of commercial refrigeration units. When you select items from your supermarket meat cooler, deli case, or frozen food display, you are likely reaching into a Howard McCray refrigeration unit.

So this August, when I open my refrigerator to get an egg, some butter, or just a cold glass of iced tea, I’ll remember old Hiram and Elmer McCray; fellow Hoosiers who helped make cool food and drink in the summertime both safe and commonplace.  

Ramona K. Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories in her home state of Indiana.

Check out her website at


Coming 2016


  1. What an interesting post! My parents had an old ice-style refrigerator that they used for furniture. My mom kept table napkins and such inside. It was made of beautiful oak wood and very sturdy. Thanks for rekindling the memory, Ramona and for a very informative post. :)

    1. Thanks, Michele! What a wonderful antique your family had! I hope it remains in the family. I love to rekindle memories. :-) Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. I really like the look of the wooden box refrigerators with glass doors so you can see in! I think someone should invent a modern one like that. If only I knew how! sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Hi, Sharon! The glass doors do give them a wonderful look, and you could see at a glance what you were running low on without opening the fridge door. I'm not sure my fridge is always neat enough for visitor's eyes, though. LOL

  3. Always interesting to learn how our modern conveniences came into being. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Ramona, Do you know when the first electric refrigerators were created? I occasionally see an old ice boxes as I've gone antiquing. When I got married in 1975, I inherited the refrigerator my mom got when she got married in 1950. It was still running well, and we used it for years. As a writer of historical fiction, I often think about the challenges of preparing meals without the blessing refrigeration.

    1. Hi, Vickie. They had the electric ones first for commercial use and for the very wealthy. I don't have a solid year date, but sometime in the 1920s, I think. I'll check my notes and get back to you on that. Back before the ice box if you didn't have a spring house or ice house outside, you just had to use your milk and meat products quickly. Eggs, I know, can last outside of refrigeration for a few days, but all in all, it would have been tough.

    2. Vickie, this is what I found on Wikipedia about the history of electric refrigerators for home use: "In 1913, refrigerators for home and domestic use were invented by Fred W. Wolf of Fort Wayne, Indiana with models consisting of a unit that was mounted on top of an ice box.[6] In 1914, engineer Nathaniel B. Wales of Detroit, Michigan, introduced an idea for a practical electric refrigeration unit, which later became the basis for the Kelvinator. A self-contained refrigerator, with a compressor on the bottom of the cabinet was invented by Alfred Mellowes in 1916. Mellowes produced this refrigerator commercially but was bought out by William C. Durant in 1918, who started the Frigidaire Company to mass-produce refrigerators.[7] In 1918, Kelvinator Company introduced the first refrigerator with any type of automatic control. The absorption refrigerator was invented by Baltzar von Platen and Carl Munters from Sweden in 1922, while they were still students at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. It became a worldwide success and was commercialized by Electrolux. Other pioneers included Charles Tellier, David Boyle, and Raoul Pictet... Carl von Linde was the first to patent and make a practical and compact refrigerator." Yeaa! Another Hoosier on the front line! It looks like 1918. I'm guess you would have found electric refrigerators in most middle and upper class homes by the 1920s.

  5. Hi Ramona. Very interesting post. Also liked your comment to Sharon about messy fridge. Wouldn't want everyone seeing inside mine either when they were nearby. As for the ice boxes. I grew up with that kind. but no fancy wood or glass doors. I would think that glass wouldn't let the ice box stay as cold. It had one door big enough for a big block of ice, then the shelves for food. Usually with ice delivered by the iceman. But, I do remember the block of ice wrapped in a thick quilt in momma's washtub, also. Also, I can remember times when we had a metal stand with on wheels and two shelves with sides 4 or 5 inches high. Momma would put stuff that needed to be cold in cold water in the trays and wet a towel and put over the food with edges in the water to soak up water and keep things cold. We lived out in the country most times with no electricity. We had a very happy home tho , with parents there was 10 of us. Maxie > mac262(at)me(dot)com <

  6. Thanks, Maxie! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. What wonderful memories you have of that old ice box! We've all gotten spoiled with our modern conveniences. Sounds like you and your large, happy family managed quite well with that old ice box. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your great story. Makes me wish I had asked my mom and her two siblings more about their growing up years on the farm while I still had them.

  7. Thank you for your great post, Ramona! So interesting!

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

  8. I wonder if I am related. I have seen McCray refrigerator units in delis and markets and have always wondered. I know some of my background out new York state is related to the Loomis gang, and I've had some ancestral get together but have never heard of this. That's k for sharing this very interesting read! Of you happen to investigate a little more. My email is Again thank you! Ian M McCray