Monday, April 30, 2012

Alaska Refrigerator History

Above is one of the ice boxes from Alaska Refrigerator's 1901 catalog.  Many of its models featured fancy woodwork.

                                            ALASKA REFRIGERATOR HISTORY

Alaska Refrigerator was one of the charter members of the new Muskegon Heights project. The company actually got its start in Michigan City, Indiana, in 1878. John Moon, a Muskegon lumberman, was one of leading stockholders. Five years later Moon purchased controlling interest in the company and became president.

When the company was looking to expand in 1890, it quite naturally looked to Muskegon. President John Moon was no doubt aware that the Muskegon Improvement Association was offering buildings and cash bonuses to businesses willing to relocate to Muskegon.

The spot picked for Alaska Refrigerator was on the north side of McKinney Ave (later Broadway), between Sanford and Sixth streets. The main factory building measured 60 x 340 feet and stood three stories high. A two-story warehouse 60 x 400 feet also was built. A smaller building housed boilers and power equipment.

People at that time often referred to refrigerators as "ice boxes." They were, essentially, a cabinet with a block of ice inside. No moving parts were needed. The shelves were arranged so the air circulated around the ice and kept the contents cold. Usually a pan at the bottom collected water as the ice melted. Some models offered a spigot to drain the water. Commercial models might use a tube running directly to a drain to carry off melt water.

Just a year after operations began here (1892), Alaska Refrigerator shipped 4000 refrigerators on a single train (42 freight cars) to a sales distributor in Massachusetts. The event was highly publicized and got a lot of exposure for the company. It quickly became an annual event.

Within the next two decades Alaska Refrigerator would grow to be amongst the largest manufacturers of its kind in the world. In the year 1901 the company published two (80 plus page) catalogs, one for the commercial trade and one for household refrigerators. (See Hackley library for copies). On one page was the note "Over 475,000 sold since 1878."

The Alaska name became known world-wide. An article in the Muskegon Chronicle, July 20, 1911, describes some of the foreign shipments that year. The biggest order was for 900 units to be shipped to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Another of 229 units was destined for Melbourne, Australia. Pretoria, South Africa, was also listed as an important customer.

The plant was said to cover 8 city blocks in 1911 and had a capacity of 5000 refrigerators a month. The company employed 325 men. The officers were Thomas Hume, president; Paul Moon, vice president; W. H. Mann, treasurer; and J. H. Ford, served as secretary and general manager.

In the 1920s, refrigerators began to be electrified. The public was quick to appreciate the much greater convenience of automatic refrigeration. Alaska, however, seemed slow to adopt the new technology to its product line and lost business to other companies. In 1926, the capital stock of the company was purchased by Coldak Corp. of New York. Five years later the property was acquired by Borg Warner Corp. Borg Warner moved its Norge (refrigerator) division from Detroit to here, and a whole new era began for the Muskegon Heights company.

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