Florida panhandle weather is usually windy and cold in March. Some days it is exceptionally so which can make outdoor activities less than pleasant. On days like this we turn inland to check out local attractions. So it was that five of us piled in a car to troll downtown Apalachicola for action. Our group of five women as individuals possess remarkable talent, but as a group we lacked focus on exactly what to do, and were mired in one of those “Oh, I’ll do whatever anyone wants to do but I won’t make a decision” moments. We managed to agree we had no interest in shopping, and that we wanted lunch. We stopped at the Chamber of Commerce to pick up informational materials, when a woman dressed head to toe in bright pink approached us and told us that we should
visit the John Gorrie museum. “You know, when I have my daily martini I raise my first glass to John Gorrie,” she said. She answered our blank stares. “He invented the first ice machine!” As a Martini lover myself, I have a great appreciation for ice in that and many other applications. Based on her recommendation, we decided to head over to the museum, which we were told had just reopened after renovations. We walked over to find out that it was closed for lunch. Fortunately we had already worked that out so we also went for lunch, and then headed back to the small building that was the John Gorrie Museum. When we arrived, the only other vehicle in the parking lot was the ranger’s truck.
As we paid our two dollar admission fee the young ranger in charge offered a quick apology. “We have temporary exhibits right now, we just reopened and the permanent exhibits haven’t arrived.” We exchanged glances n the small room that was the entrance, museum and office. The ranger didn’t give us any time to reconsider our decision. “How much do y’all know about Dr. John Gorrie?” The question was entirely rhetorical, and without pausing Ranger Jeromy Roundtree launched into action.
John Gorrie was a physician and an inventor. He believed that illnesses like yellow fever were caused by too much heat and that cooling the air was a way to prevent and perhaps cure the disease. He figured a way to cool the air for his patients, using ice in a bucket and convection to make what my father called a “swamp chiller.” Back then ice was brought to the south from the north at a dear price. Dr. Gorrie believed he could cool people if he had better access to ice and set himself to figuring out a way to make ice mechanically. He developed and manufactured a working prototype ice maker for which he secured a patent. Unfortunately, a Michigan businessman known as the “Ice King” got wind of this and started a campaign of slandering the doctor in a pre-internet fake news campaign, saying that man-made ice was unnatural and against God who was the only one to make ice through the force of nature, which only men on the Great Lakes could harvest. The Ice King hammered home the idea that manufactured ice was unholy and unclean to the point where anyone interested pulled away from the idea. When Gorrie’s primary financial backer died unexpectedly, he was unable to build any commercially viable ice machines. Defeated, he went back to doctoring, but kept his original machine to make ice as an occasional hobby. He remained active in the community, serving as a council member, Postmaster, President of the Bank of Pensacola’s Apalachicola Branch, Secretary of the Masonic Lodge, and he was one of the founding vestrymen of Trinity Episcopal Church, which is near the museum. He packed a lot of living into a relatively short life, and died at the age of 52. Three years after his death, commercial ice makers came into being, manufactured by the Iron Forge in Cincinnati Ohio.
The above is my summary of an hour of Jeromy’s storytelling, which was the best I’ve heard in a long time. The ability to spin a good yarn is an essential skill for a person stationed in what some of my forest service friends would call a “cannonball park.” A cannonball park has one attraction to look at and nothing else to do. I’ve visited dozens of these places. Generally you pay an admission to wander around under the watchful gaze of a ranger or a docent and little else happens. Not so at the museum dedicated to Dr. John Gorrie. To say Jeromy was immersed in his subject was an understatement. He knew dozens of little details and stories about the man and his era, which he rattled off while he turned the crank of the mock up of Gorrie’s machine. He peppered his sentences with y’all, ma’am, and surely. He told us about a day when all the other rangers were using the museum for a regional meeting, and he had to leave to get his two-year old daughter from daycare. “They all looked at me kinda funny, but I surely had to go get her because—well, that’s what a father does.” When he brought her back to the meeting, Jeromy said she ran in, took a look at the portrait of Gorrie near the door, pointed and called him “DaDa!” With a personality like her dad, she won over the crowd of dour administrators.
I asked him how he’d come to be a ranger. He told me he’d worked in corrections for a couple years before landing a job with the forest service, where he was assigned to the Gorrie museum. I offered that it had to be a big change in environment. “Yes ma’am, the people here are surely easier to manage,” he said with a big grin. “I love history and I spent a lot of time learning about Dr. Gorrie here. He was a smart man.”
We women all agreed we wanted to adopt him immediately. Here was a man who took what could be considered the most boring assignment in the city and turned it into an opportunity. I’m sure in the whole Florida parks system there are many more plum jobs that would offer more challenges, but the ability to use a humble museum stocked with a few posters, a single exhibit and some old ranger uniforms come alive as a backdrop for storytelling is a real gift. That’s every bit as special as and smart as a doctor who wants to make his patients more comfortable and invents a machine to make ice. I’m sure Dr. Gorrie would be pleased with the young man representing him.
If you’d like to read more about Dr. Gorrie check out this excellent story from the Apalachicola Historical Society. Now you know how manufactured ice came to be. Next time you have your chilled martini, ice tea, Kool Aid, or you plop an ice bag on the ankle you rolled, take a moment to remember Dr. Gorrie and his marvelous invention. If you’re ever in Apalachicola, visit Ranger Jeromy at the Gorrie museum to hear some wonderful stories.