#Unearthed: The Ice Grotto

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. #Unearthed is a monthly feature on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a compelling journey through time. 

This month's gem is an article from the January 1896 issue of "Ice And Refrigeration" magazine describing The Ice Grotto at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, the first artificial ice rink in the Southern United States. Also included is a clipping from "The Atlanta Constitution" highlighting the exploitation that went on at the rink.


So much has been said of the Atlanta Exposition that nothing need now be added, the Exposition having closed, except that it was a great success as a representative Southern effort, although, like all public enterprises of like character, the ultimate financial exhibit is not as satisfactory as might be wished. However, the readers of "Ice And Refrigeration" are now less interested in those considerations than in the exhibits of ice and refrigerating machinery. No large machines were erected on the grounds, but two interesting exhibits were made by two new competitors for public favor, who are best known at present, perhaps, to our readers as builders of the 'small' machine, although that type of machine is but an incident of their business. The first of these is the Economical Refrigerating Co., of Chicago, who had a 1-ton machine in operation in Machinery hall, as shown by the illustration herewith. The machine requires about one horse power, gas or electric motor, and will cool about 2,000 cubic feet under ordinary conditions of insulation, etc. As shown by the picture, the machine cooled an "Alaska" butcher's box, and was actuated by a Crocker-Wheeler electric motor. The machine, which is entirely automatic in its performance, and self-contained - compressor, condenser and ammonia drum being all contained within the one casting - and refrigerates by direct expansion, was run continually during the week, being shut down only on Saturday night; and on closing down or on starting up again on Monday morning, no valves were (or need be) changed, the only action required to start or shut down the machine being to turn on and shut off the motive power. The machine was awarded a gold medal and diploma by the committee on awards.

The other exhibit was more elaborate, being none other than the "Midway" concession known as the "Ice Grotto," which is herewith illustrated - an ice palace and skating rink, where, as a local paper said, the following paradox was visible: "Five Esquimaux, attired in heavy furs, stood on the Midway and watched a fancy skater as he cut many curious figures on a lake of ice. The group was in the ice palace, and a perspiring crowd watched the arctic people as they danced around to keep warm." The exhibit, as a whole, may be described as follows: The building was 35 feet wide and 130 feet long. The front was built to represent an iceberg, and was 50 feet high, with a 12-foot flag staff, making 62 feet over all. The framework of the iceberg was of wood, covered with cotton duck, painted to represent ice, and decorated with mica and powdered glass, which made it glitter in the sun by day, while at night the electric light made it appear like a real iceberg studded with sparkling gems.

Clipping from the November 1, 1895 issue of "The Atlanta Constitution" that highlights the exploitation that went on at The Ice Grotto

The Phoenix wheel was just across the Midway, fronting the iceberg, and as it revolved its lights were reflected by the iceberg, making a very beautiful sight. Standing on the highest point of the grounds the grotto could be seen from every point of the Exposition, having been elevated 150 feet above the level of Lake Clara Mere, so that one could easily imagine that he was looking at a mountain of ice studded with diamonds. A negro remarked to another when standing on the bank of the lake, half mile from the berg, that, "A white man done frozen a mountain of ice, and covered it over with diamonds." The entrance was made to represent an ice grotto, on entering which the way seemed blocked with ice, and the effect was so natural that many put out their hands to touch it to see if it were real. Others shivered and said that it was too cold for them to enter, and would not enter until told that the auditorium was heated by steam. Those who thought their way blocked found on turning to the left what seemed to be a tunnel hewn through solid ice, following which they entered a beautiful auditorium 30 feet wide and 50 feet long. This also was lined with cotton duck, painted to represent ice, and at the farther end was a plate glass front, which separated the auditorium from a frozen palace in which the temperature was kept near zero. This palace was 22 feet wide and 35 feet long, 14 feet high. The floor was frozen for skating, while the walls and ceiling were piped and festooned with frost and icicles. The skating surface was always frozen, and there was almost continuous skating by experts from 10:00 A. M. to 11:00 P. M. The surface was kept in good condition by simply sweeping with a wet broom every hour, the skaters at no time being kept off longer than ten minutes. After the rink was closed at night the employees flooded the ice half an inch deep with water, and by the next morning this was as smooth and slick as glass.

The ice surface was used only for trick skaters, except now and then contests were given by skaters from the audience. The ice cut by the skates was always dry, and was swept up in banks and used for snow ball matches. Imagine fifty men and women from the audience going into this frozen palace and joining in a game of snowballing, while the audience sat in a warm auditorium and viewed the scene with nothing but a plate glass and stage between them. There was a small stage between the audience and the  plate glass, and on this stage a band of Esquimaux gave performances of their native songs, dances and athletic sports. They were covered with their fur robes, and had the frozen palace for a background, which, when different colored lights were flashed on it by a powerful electrical projector, made a sight never to be forgotten. When this performance was over the audience was passed out through a grotto which ran along the right side of the ice palace into the Machinery hall, which was 30×33 feet, and beautifully decorated with bunting. In this hall were the compressor, condenser, gas receiver (two views of which are here- with shown) and also the beautiful refrigerators built by the McCray Refrigerator and Cold Storage Co., of Kendallville, Ind. Here also was a large bottle-freezing apparatus, in which 500 bottles, holding 1/2-gallon of water each, were frozen each day. These bottles had the name of the Stillwell-Bierce & Smith-Vaile Co. blown on them, and were distributed free each day among the saloons and restaurants, drinking places in Machinery hall and offices, to advertise the machine. After the audience had seen the machinery, they were passed on through the frozen palace to see the beautiful incrustations of ice and frost, intermingled with sparkling icicles at close range, while the electrical projector played on them. An average of about 1,500 people passed through this palace each day, and the manager had no trouble in keeping the temperature near zero, with the outside temperature at 80°; and even when the weather was cold, he kept the temperature in the engine room and auditorium 70° with steam heaters, thus always making the machine work against at least 70° of temperature. All of this refrigeration was done by an 8-ton refrigerating machine known as the "Victor," designed by N. R. Keeling, and built by the Stillwell-Bierce & Smith-Vaile Co., of Dayton, Ohio. The exhibit described was put up by N. R. Keeling as concessionaire, and cost about $11,000 exclusive of refrigerating machinery. The machine was awarded a gold medal and diploma by the committee on awards. The well known Frick Co., of Waynesboro, Pa., exhibited no refrigerating machinery, but had a 250 horse power engine furnishing power in the Machinery building; also one high speed automatic 150 horse power engine, to which was belted an Edison dynamo for the electric fountains and search lights.... The Garlock Packing Co., which furnished the packings, ammonia and steam for the Ice Grotto plant, had also packings - in all the steam pumps in boiler house.

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