Founded in 1854 by John Ebner, Sr., what would eventually become the Ebner Ice & Cold Storage Company saw enormous growth in the latter half of the 19th century and first years of the 20th. John Ebner’s son, Joseph, who had served as company president since 1889, died in 1914 and stockholders elected his brother, Lawrence, to succeed him in that role.
The business encountered some financial difficulties during the First World War due to the cost of labor and material but overall continued to prosper. A southside plant was opened on the corner of Thirteenth and Barnett streets, along with a plant in Vandalia, Illinois, making plants in eight cities in Indiana and Illinois.
Various ice stations were also set up around Vincennes where people could go and pay cash for ice. These were for residents who did not want deliveries from the ice wagons that traversed the streets. People who got ice from the ice wagons used special coupon books to pay for the product.
At the start of the 1920s, the company was producing 140 tons of ice per day and storage of apples remained a big part of the business. By 1930, the Ebner company was storing 210,000 bushels of apples annually.
Another change in management occurred in 1934 when, on New Year’s Day, Lawrence Ebner succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 61. In his will, he left the majority of his estate to his widow, Aline, along with some shares in the company to nieces.
In 1916, Joseph Ebner’s daughters, Vivian and Laurine, had married brothers Herbert and George Glover in a double wedding ceremony. In March 1934, Herbert, who lived in Cincinnati, was elected non-resident president of the company and George was made vice president and sales manager. Walter Stein operated the business as vice-president and general manager. Some years later, George would take on the role of president and general manager.
At mid-century, the Ebner Ice & Cold Storage Company began to suffer financially. Beginning in 1947, when they started experiencing real losses, the company was reorganized and, by 1953, had managed to break even. Unfortunately, that same year, the area suffered through a severe drought, which drastically hurt the fall apple crop. That year, Ebner’s stored only about 30% of the apples they would have taken in if it had been a typical season. That became one of the chief factors marking the end of the nearly 100-year-old business.
In November 1953, with William Ebner Glover, the son of Herbert and Vivian, serving as president, the company filed for bankruptcy. Local attorney Matt Welsh was appointed receiver by the court. Welsh was then ordered to sell the company’s assets, including ice plants, land, buildings, machinery, and equipment. A public auction was set for Jan. 28, 1954, at the Vincennes City Hall Council Chamber on South Fourth Street.
The sale that day, which included assets at all of the company’s locations, brought in $96,600, that figure excluding the Vandalia, Illinois, real estate. The Becker Motor Company, of Detroit, Michigan, acquired the Vincennes property for the sum of $24,500. The personal property at Ebner’s Vincennes location went to William Dumes, local buyer of scrap iron, who had the winning bid of $8,250.
With the Ebner company closed, there were immediate concerns about where Vincennes people would get their ice. Those worries were alleviated when three other area ice dealers purchased Ebner’s ice-making equipment from Dumes. These were James Atkinson, of Bicknell; Francis Hennenberger, of Princeton; and James Junior Stillwell, of Lawrenceville, Illinois. These three men all had ice plants in their respective communities. These companies supplied Vincennes with ice, even temporarily using Ebner’s building.
One man whose life was dramatically altered by the closing of the Ebner Ice & Cold Storage Company was 65-year-old Robert Smith, who had worked for the company since June 1919. During that time, Smith delivered ice all over the city. Even though he had lost an arm in a 1914 farming accident, Smith was still able to swing a 50-pound block of ice on his back.
Today, Ebner’s massive cold storage building still stands. In 1965, Vincennes University acquired the former Ebner property from Julius Becker and the 1906 building was used for classrooms and offices. As noted in last week’s column, it is now a part of the Technology Center and Ebner Residence Hall.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes and Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.