Fair banks Morse Engines Survive In Louisiana Ice Plant

Fairbanks Morse diesel engine

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P.O. Box 51, Laplace, Louisiana 70068

In the early 1900s, my grandfather, Armand Montz Sr., was a vegetable grower and shipper in Louisiana. His first major crop was shallots; he shipped his first barrel of these tender onions by rail in 1911. In an effort to keep his produce fresh until it arrived at its destination, he soon started the practice of packing his vegetables in crates, topping each crate off with ice, and then packing the crates in even more ice in railcars.

This method provided a fresher product for market, but my grandfather had to rely on outside vendors for ice. As his packing business flourished, Montz decided to build his own ice factory, which he located on a spur of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad (now the Illinois Central) in Laplace, Louisiana. Machines in the plant made what is known as 'snow' ice.

He had his own farm in conjunction with the plant, and grew what he shipped. He also purchased vast amounts of vegetables from all the other smaller farmers of this area. About 10 refrigerated railroad cars per day were shipped from this plant. He also had his own refrigerated trucks to ship his vegetables.

Powering the ice plant were four Fairbanks Morse diesel engines. These engines date back to around 1912. My grandfather soon realized that he had an excess of power from these engines, so he strung wire and put up poles until an area of about 25 miles was provided with electricity from the plant. Three of these engines remain at the plant. The control board is also intact. Our grand' father sold his electrical franchise to Louisiana Power 6k Light in 1927.

A 1921 article in L'Observateur, a local newspaper, stated that the factory was equipped with a 40 HP Fairbanks Morse crude oil engine and a York refrigerating machine, 'of the latest type,' with a daily output of 15 tons of ice and a storage capacity of 40 tons.

Our grandfather (A. Montz) also provided water to the town of Laplace from this plant. When he dug the wells in the early 1920s to furnish the plant with water, he realized he had an excess of water, so he laid down water lines and furnished water to the town. My family operated the waterworks until 1969.

From the early 1900s to 1939, A. Montz was shipping fresh vegetables, iced for freshness, nationwide. In 1939, he started experimenting with frozen foods. He is said to be the first frozen food processor and shipper in the southern United States, and is credited with being the first processor to successfully freeze okra and corn on the cob for commercial consumption. This was one reason we decided the plant (packing house) must be preserved. There are many historical features to this plant.

A. Montz was also the first farmer of Louisiana to introduce the usage of rubber tires on tractors and farm wagons. They had iron wheels before, and would tear up the roads. He also did much experimentation with fertilizers and seeds, in efforts to develop the highest quality of produce for his packing plant. He was always experimenting with something.

A. Montz shipped vegetables and frozen foods until 1958-1960, and then started growing sugar cane. He shut down farming operations around 1968, but my father and his brother continued to operate the ice factory. The area of Laplace (St. John the Baptist Parish) was mostly agricultural for many years, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s the oil industry moved in, and farming on a large scale went the way of the dinosaur. My father and his brother operated the ice plant until 1974, when they leased the factory site to an oil service company. That was the end of the ice factory, as the oil service company ran it into the ground. The plant was in good operating condition until our family leased it. Armand Montz Sr. died in 1968.

We finally got rid of the oil service company, but the damage was done. They left it a mess. The plant sat boarded up and unused from 1984 until 1989. In March 1989, the ice factory caught fire, in a blaze which flared on and off for three days.

This is a brief summary of the situation; now I will tell you how I and my cousin Gilbert Maurin got interested in the place.

I was just out of college when the plant caught fire, and it just so happened that I had a little time on my hands. I should say at this point that before the place caught fire, I hardly ever set foot on this property. I can remember going to the plant when I was a little boy and hearing the hum of those big engines. At that time, all I knew was that it was an ice factory. I was not aware of the earlier history of the place, as my interest was elsewhere. I had always heard about my grandfather and about the frozen foods, but I didn't pay much attention to it. After the fire, I decided I was going to clean up the plant site.

My cousin, Gilbert Maurin, already had a woodworking shop in one of the factory buildings, and he was game for cleaning up the site. Our only intention at first was to clean up. As the days passed, I started realizing how historical this old plant was. It was like a major discovery for me. So much history was locked up in the plant, it was a shame to see it all wasting away. We decided we were going to make a museum out of it. It is a landmark in St. John Parish, and people are starting to take notice of what we are doing. Much was accomplished at this ice factory and packing house, and it was the only major employer in Laplace for many years.

We have really cleaned up a lot, but the biggest hurdle is to repair the fire damage. The damage was mostly to the ice factory building itself, and the cold storage area. There are other buildings at the site untouched by the fire. One of these buildings is our museum display area.

The engines were not harmed by the fire. Vandals took the copper wire out of the engines before the site was secured. We are two and one-half years into this clean up and museum effort. This old plant and the engines were almost scrapped after the fire, but we intervened and made sure our parents didn't go ahead with these plans. They now think it is great what we are doing. They never thought we could pull it off, but we have managed to save it and get it listed as a historical site. We have much to do before the plant can really be a functioning museum, but for now we do bring people through by appointment. We both work full-time, and the plant project is worked at on weekends.

Currently on display we have a 1947 White truck, a 1930s era John Deere tractor, various farm implements and tools, frozen food labels, photographs of the farm, ice factory, and packing house, the vegetable preparation area (kitchen), plus many more interesting items associated with the A. Montz company, and of course, the engines! If you would like to pay us a visit, call 504-652-1845 or 504-652-9253 to arrange a tour appointment.