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March 3, 2010 > History: The Ice Man

History: The Ice Man

The words," ice man," evoke an image of the man who regularly stocked ice boxes before the introduction of refrigerators. Carrying 25 pound blocks of ice held by tongs over his shoulder, the familiar figure was a favorite of children who hoped to gather some juicy ice chips!

During that period, Centerville and Irvington became produce shipping centers, creating a need for large amounts of ice. Most produce was shipped in railroad refrigerator cars that had to be iced before departing. Union Ice Co. of Hayward delivered 300 pound blocks of ice to the packing sheds of L. S. Williams and other growers. The blocks were fed into a crusher, the crushed ice conveyed to the car to be iced then blown over the produce.

The man who made the greatest impact on the ice industry in this area was Hugo Miller. Hugo was born into a large family in Nebraska in 1900. He became a carpenter, and at age 20 hopped a freight train to work in the oil fields of Wyoming, where he met his future wife, Emma Todd. By 1924 he was in El Centro, California, helping to build an ice plant.

The project completed, he applied for work with the company and learned that they preferred the stability of married men. Once assured a job, he returned to Wyoming and whisked his new bride back to El Centro. Their two children were born there: Floyd in 1930 and Janet in 1934. Guided by a strong religious faith and work ethic, by 1941 he was vice-president of the company.

Hugo created an ice crushing system used first on a trailer then on a truck, which permitted him to go into packing sheds and into fields. He moved to San Jose in the early 40's and took over a business which became Central Ice Company. He soon developed a system of wrapping 25 pound bags of ice for home delivery.

Central Ice came to Irvington in 1949 to ice produce for Lloyd Bailey at the Southern Pacific tracks on Washington Boulevard and for Burdette Williams and L. S. Williams at the tracks in Centerville. At this time Hugo's son, Floyd, a San Jose State student, began his career with the company as a driver delivering bagged ice.

Hugo met the Fudenna family about 1950, marking the beginning of a long relationship. One early icing arrangement was for the ice-filled trucks from San Jose to meet the Fudenna produce-loaded trucks headed for Los Angeles and ice them beside the highway! Central Ice placed an ice storage unit and crusher on the Fudenna property in Irvington making three tons of ice available for even faster cooling. This permitted ripened crops to be trucked or flown around the country - even placed on refrigerated ships.

Hugo developed a vacuum cooling system in the 50's that revolutionized the industry, making equipment capable of going into fields and cooling produce instantly. Soon the company moved its headquarters to the Warm Springs area near where Home Depot now stands. This was the time when 25 pound bags of ice started to appear in gas stations and convenience stores. Vending machines dispensed the bags and the company had the fastest, most versatile operation west of the Mississippi.

In his 60's Hugo started to withdraw from the company; his son Floyd taking the lead. Floyd had learned to fly at 16 and had served as a pilot in the U. S. Air Force. Now married to Joann, they had two children, Craig and Sue. By 1970, while Central Ice was concentrating on a vacuum process, Hugo missed the bagged ice business and met John Nicholson, then a San Jose State student, at a very opportune time.

John's work ethic appealed to Hugo - now 70 - and he asked John to join him in a new business... Glacier Ice was born. The company was established near Hugo's original company and grew rapidly. Their famous slogan, "I only have ice for you" originated with John's wife, Katie. As a little girl she'd found the saying on a napkin and saved it. It served her well when she married an ice man!

In 1992 a new plant was completed on Ice House Terrace. Hugo Terrace is around the corner. A second plant opened in Elk Grove in 1995, and the company continues to grow. With a local capacity of 600 tons of ice per day, every need is met from those familiar blue bags at the supermarket to 300 pound blocks for sculpting.

Hugo's first company continued a phenomenal expansion program under Floyd's leadership. With the decline of farming in this area, the company's operations have moved but its corporate headquarters remain in Fremont, where Floyd and Joann make their home. Western PreCooling Systems uses various cooling methods as well as its patented HydroVac process for different types of produce with cooling facilities throughout the western states and in Mexico. When you have fresh strawberries or veggies in your fridge, there's a good chance they were cooled by Western PreCooling!

Floyd is still very active in the company, now serving as Vice-President while son Craig, who started with the company as a Washington High student, is President. Daughter Sue is Office Manager. Another generation was added when Craig's son, Josh, a recent Cal Poly graduate, became Assistant to the President.

As imaginative as he was, Hugo could probably not have foreseen the result of that first ice house job so many years ago. This is the amazing legacy of one ice man - Hugo Miller.

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