In the spring of 1849, John Ebner, Sr. arrived in Vincennes and went to work to earn enough money to establish his own bakery and grocery store. He later started the Eagle Brewery and operated a saloon. Still, it wasn’t any of those concerns for which Ebner would be best remembered locally, but rather the ice business he founded. Even today, some 65 years after the Ebner Ice & Cold Storage Company closed, the name Ebner is still synonymous with the sale of ice.
John Ebner was born in Alsace, France, in 1817 and immigrated to the United States in 1846, first working as a baker in the cities of New Orleans and Cincinnati. He was later employed on a steamboat on the Ohio River. As noted, after coming to Vincennes, he started several businesses. He founded the Eagle Brewery in 1859-60 and was involved with that company until 1878.
Varying dates are given as to when the industrious Ebner began in the retail ice trade, but 1854 is most often cited as the year he began selling the commodity on a small scale. His ice business gradually grew, and he founded The John Ebner Ice Company on the corner of Chestnut and Locust streets. In 1880, he began building large ice houses that could hold a total of 12,000 tons of ice. Sons Joseph and Lawrence joined him in the business.
The houses were near the Wabash River, since in those years natural ice was harvested from the river. It was said to be quite a sight when men and teams of horses were out on the frozen Wabash cutting the ice.
John Ebner died at the age of 71 on Jan. 26, 1889, and Joseph took over operation of the company. That same year, their natural ice business came to an end and they began manufacturing ice with distilled water, beginning with 20 tons a day, doubling that number the following year and doubling it again to 80 tons in 1894.
The company saw enormous expansion in the 1890s and early 1900s, acquiring ice plants in Seymour, Washington, and Martinsville in Indiana, and Flora and Mount Carmel in Illinois.
By 1904, the company was shipping ice as far west as Cairo and East St. Louis, Illinois, east to Cincinnati, and south to Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1891, the company began offering cold storage services for perishable goods and their name was changed to The John Ebner Ice and Cold Storage Co. They soon began storing apples for area growers, that becoming an important part of their business. By 1904, they had storage capacity for 20,000 barrels of apples. In fact, the company was credited with increasing the production of apples in this area. The purpose of storing apples was to have them available out of season. In later years, after peonies were cultivated for market in Knox County, the cut flowers were stored at the Ebner plant.
In 1906, the company was incorporated, and the name was changed to the Ebner Ice and Cold Storage Co., with all plants consolidated under one umbrella. The company was doing $180,000 in business annually. That was also the year that the massive cold storage building was constructed at the plant’s existing site. This is the building that was later made a part of the VU campus and has since been remodeled as the Technology Center and Ebner Residence Hall.
In 1908 they were producing 50,000 tons of ice a year and had a 100,000-barrel cold storage capacity. They boasted 11 ice delivery wagons and employed 35 people with $18,000 in annual wages.
Joseph Ebner died at the age of 51 in 1914, and his brother, Lawrence, who had been running the ice plant in Seymour, returned to Vincennes. In January 1915, stockholders elected him president of the company, which would see many more years of success.
To be continued next week.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.