In the late 1800s, ice was valuable cargo. Ships docked in New England ports where large chunks of frozen lake surfaces were cut out, loaded up and covered with sawdust. The ships then made their way down the east coast of the United States and up the Cape Fear River, docking at the Ice House in Wilmington to unload. The Ice House was an important destination for decades—until mechanical ice-making came along. Following this technological advance, the ships stopped coming, the trade ended and the Ice House went dormant—until 1990.
By Michael Raab
That year, Riverfest weekend found downtown Wilmington to be a sort of shopping district, a sort of business district and sort of this-and-that. Joe Carney, Jim Bath and another investor had re-opened the Ice House on Saturday, October 6th as an open-air beer garden. Music became an integral part of its story from day one; Arthur “Lovewhip” Shuey and his band, along with saxman David Schartman and his combo, E.C.O., filled the Ice House courtyard with cool blues and hot jazz.
“I had always thought a lot of downtown Wilmington,” says Carney. “It started off as a real estate investment, and one thing led to another.” His partner, Jim Bath, also had some interesting ideas for the Ice House, like the tug parked in the lot. “Jim Bath was the inspiration. The tug came from across the river, originally from the salvage yard. It was formerly owned by the Shah of Iran because he owned the shipping company that owned the tugboat,” says Carney.
The Ice House later became the home of the Blues Society of the Lower Cape Fear. Music was a marvelous eclectic mix, from flamenco by William “Paco” Strickland to Southern blues by Charlie and Rose Lucas, folk acoustic served up by Gary Allen, funky stuff by Tommy B & the Stingers, indie rock by Calamity and even shag competitions by local dance groups. It became, as Carney described, “a fun place that was more than a bar. It became a community center. Everyone had a good time downtown, which was just as it should have been.” Regular patron Connie Nelson said, “Day or night, you could count on great music and an enthusiastic crowd.”
In 1995 Carney sold his share to Karl Tutt and Frank Greathouse. The new owners re-opened the Ice House on March 1, 1996. They wanted to keep the community feel of the original beer garden, but at this point the environment was changing in the downtown district.
Even with the shift in ownership, the Ice House continued for awhile as an important part of downtown Wilmington’s history. In 1998, the Sultry Suthun’ Sundays CD was recorded live at the Ice House by Brad Thomas. It featured many prominent Cape Fear musicians, and a release party was held. The building also became an integral part of the wildly successful television series “Dawson’s Creek.” In the episode entitled “Parental Discretion Advised” that aired on May 26, 1999, the cast was studying inside the Ice House when it caught fire and burned down.
When problems began brewing with the new ownership, the Ice House era that made downtown Wilmington what it is today began drawing to a close. Stacey (Harrell) Shaw leased the building on December 1, 2003, and opened it up as the Ice House Pub on December 15th. The very next day,Ice House Properties LLC bought the building and served an eviction notice to Ms. Harrell on December 19th—after she had invested $20,000 in renovations. On March 26th through 28th of 2004, there was a Save The Ice House Big Blowout Bash, and many Ice House musicians performed to help Ms. Harrell recoup some of her investment. Donnie Kornegay headed up the all-day affair, cooking hotdogs and hamburgers for a $10 all you could eat and drink. At the end of the event, everyone signed the Ice House walls.
The Ice House went down on April 26, 2004 with plans for 30-unit condo development, but that development never happened. A 10th Anniversary Reunion was held in downtown Wilmington on April 27, 2014 to a packed house and featured live music by bands and musicians who had previously played at the Ice House. Five years later, a documentary, “The Ice House—The Rise and Fall of a Legendary Landmark,” was released on April 26, 2019 to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Ice House going down. Ultimately, the leveled Ice House property became what Joni Mitchell had written about in “Big Yellow Taxi”: “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Mitchell was talking about Hawaii, but the lyrics fit downtown Wilmington just as well.
The short video documentary, “The Ice House – A Legendary Landmark Lost” can be seen on YouTube at The Ice House It won a 2019 Preservation Award of Merit from the Historic Wilmington Foundation and was screened at the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival.