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When the brothers William and Frederic Tudor agreed to put together what money they had in the summer of 1805 and invest it in a scheme to sell ice to the West Indies, they held the plan close to their chests. They had dreamed up the idea after spending some pleasant weeks on the family farm, Rockwood, near Boston. It was just a few miles inland from this city, the great port that seethed with shipping and merchants, many of whom had made fortunes trading around the world in all kinds of luxury goods. New England itself had little of value to export: there was no iron or coal or cotton, and the farmland was picturesque but poor. Most of Boston's trade was secondhand: the Yankee merchants had a sharp eye for other nations' goods, which they bought and sold as their ships scoured the world for bargains.
Just to the north, the port of Salem had more or less cornered the market in peppercorns, reexporting in 1805 7.5 million tons of the spice, which was greatly valued as a food preservative in the days before refrigeration. And in 1783, the year the younger Tudor brother Frederic was born, a syndicate of Boston merchants had made a fortune from a shipload of ginseng that they sold in Canton. The herbal root, rare in China, whereit was greatly prized as an aphrodisiac and a tonic, had been found growing in abundance in North America, and the first Boston cargo was said to equal ten times the annual Chinese consumption. But even the shrewd merchants of Massachusetts had failed to realize that each winter a local product of dazzlingly high quality was left to dissolve away each spring, while in the tropical islands of the West Indies and the plantation states of southern America it would be worth its weight in gold. That, at any rate, was how the Tudor brothers saw it, and why they wanted to keep their scheme for selling ice in tropical climates a secret. Once Boston merchants got wind of their brilliant plan, they would face stiff competition.
The elder brother, William, who was twenty-six years old and a Harvard graduate with some worldly experience after traveling in Europe, was just a bit skeptical once he had considered the practical problems of the venture. But Frederic, not quite twenty-two and the maverick of the distinguished Boston family, was convinced it would make them a fortune, and that within a few years they would be, as he put it, "inevitably and unavoidably rich." As it turned out, Frederic did make his fortune selling ice, but there was nothing inevitable or unavoidable about his eventual success. The fact that he prospered at all, after suffering years of ridicule and hardship, was more of a miracle than something preordained. Then, as now, the notion that it was possible to cut lake ice in winter in New England and sell it the following summer 1,500 miles away in Cuba or Martinique, with no artificial refrigeration to prevent it from melting, was thought to be ridiculous.
Nevertheless, the plan did make some sense. The Tudor family was privileged. The brothers' grandfather Deacon Tudor was a self-made baker and merchant who had sailed from Devon, England, in 1715, at the age of six. His mother was a young widow who had remarried in America, well enough for John to receive a basic education. John did sufficiently well in business to send his youngest son, William, to Harvard to study law. He also bought the hundred-acre farm, Rockwood, as a kind of rugged country estate where the family could spend the hot summer months away from their town house in Boston. At Rockwood, like a few of the better-off Bostonians, the Tudors had an icehouse that was stocked in winter from a pond on the farm that usually froze solid in January and February. As children, Frederic and his brothers and sisters enjoyed ice cream in the summer and took their drinks cooled with chunks of crystal-clear ice from Rockwood Pond. This was a great luxury. In Europe, icehouses-traditionally underground and lined with brick or stone-had long been a privilege of the wealthy, who could afford to excavate them on their estates and had the manpower to fill them in winter with ice from their frozen ornamental lakes.
This luxury was denied to those who lived in tropical climates, including the colonial rulers of the West Indian islands and the prosperous plantation owners of the cotton belt in South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. What would they pay for a shipload of perspiring New England ice during their most torrid season, when the heat was hardly bearable and yellow fever raged? Selling them ice, it seemed to Frederic Tudor, would be an excellent and simple proposition provided a few technicalities could be sorted out. It was a straightforward matter of supply and demand, once the problem had been solved of how to keep the supply from melting before it reached the demand.
The Tudor brothers were in the happy position of having a bit of family money to invest. In 1794, when Frederic was eleven, their grandfather John had died at the age of eighty-six, and had left everything to their father, William. This small fortune consisted of forty thousand dollars in cash and investments, some properties in Boston, and Rockwood. William was always known affectionately in the family as "the Judge," a title he had acquired when he served as judge advocate in George Washington's army. His Harvard education and his military service afforded him many good connections in New England society, where he was well liked for his jovial personality. Before 1794, he had practiced as a lawyer, but he felt he was well enough off after John died to give up work and live the life of a landed gentleman. The Judge was a generous man and a spendthrift, and the family lived well. He could afford to send his sons to Harvard and to give them a generous allowance that enabled them to travel, and sometimes to dabble in speculation.
In preparation for Harvard, Frederic was sent to Boston Latin School. At the age of thirteen, he decided that college was a waste of time, dropped out of school, and took a job as an apprentice in a Boston store. His mother, Delia, a cultured woman who was anxious that her sons be properly educated, did not approve. Nor did his eldest brother, William. But neither had any authority over him, and at the time Frederic left school, the Judge was off on a jaunt to Europe. Frederic wrote to him: "I hope you will not be displeased with my going so young." When the Judge returned to Boston, Frederic had already given up his apprenticeship and was spending his days on the Rockwood farm, hunting and fishing with a black servant of the family who had been given the name Sambo. Frederic loved Rockwood and sometimes imagined he could make the farm pay, but he spent most of his time on little schemes that came to nothing, such as designing a water pump that he believed would make ships unsinkable.
When he was seventeen years old and still hanging idly around Rockwood, an opportunity arose that would have an influence on Frederic's later conviction that there would be a demand for ice in the West Indies. His nineteen-year-old brother, John Henry, had a bad knee that had turned him into an invalid. Anxious about his son's health, the Judge suggested that Frederic take John away somewhere. The boys were enthusiastic, and chose to go to Havana, then a thriving trading port on the Spanish island of Cuba. It would not be just a convalescent trip: while they were there they might try their hand at trading in coffee or sugar-they had already made a small profit selling mahogany furniture to Havana. On February 26, 1801, they sailed from Boston on the Patty with $1,000 in travel money given to them by their father.
John Henry left a jaundiced account of the voyage. Both brothers were seasick for the first week or so, got sunburned, and hated the shipboard diet of beef and soup. They were at sea for a month, arriving in Havana at the end of March. At first they thought Cuba a kind of paradise, full of excitement and tropical fruit, and for two months they took tours, engaged in a little trade, and lost money. But by the end of May, as Havana heated up and the mosquitoes and scorpions became bothersome, they decided to leave. John Henry's knee was getting worse, and gave him pain every day. At the beginning of June, they bought passage on a ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina, loaded with molasses, which gave off a fierce and heavy stench. To ensure that they would eat tolerably well on this voyage, the brothers loaded up for their own consumption 192 eggs, which would be enough for half a dozen or more each a day.
In Charleston, they were entertained by some kindly Bostonians who were living there, but the heat was just as bad as in Havana. The brothers sailed on to Virginia, driven north by the rising summer temperatures, and, still with their "tongues hanging out," as John Henry put it, cruised into the Potomac River, where they had a glimpse of Mount Vernon, which had been George Washington's estate. In search of a cure for John Henry, they went on overland to a spa in Bath, Pennsylvania. Each day his health was deteriorating-he may have been suffering from bone tuberculosis-and lumps appeared on his side. In August, they met up by chance with their mother and eldest brother, William, and all four went to Philadelphia, from where Frederic and William took the stagecoach back to Boston. At the end of January 1802, John Henry died in Philadelphia, his mother by his bedside. When Frederic, back on the Rockwood estate, heard the news four months after he had last seen his brother, he was deeply affected.
Frederic's brother William, who had finished his studies, went off to Europe to broaden his education. The Judge found Frederic an unpaid position with a mercantile firm owned by his friends the Sullivan brothers. There he spent two years arranging shipments of pimento, nutmeg, sugar, and tea. With this experience behind him, the Judge felt confident enough to set Frederic up in business on his own, though he did not know what exactly he would trade in. The best bet at that time appeared to be speculation in real estate, for Boston was a growing city, and handsome profits had been made by those who owned land that could be built on. The Judge himself decided to put the family fortune into a venture in South Boston that was considered to be gilt-edged. A new bridge was being built to connect the town with an isolated area of land in the complex archipelago of Boston Bay. Frederic had a stake in it too, buying land for $7,640 in partnership with his brother William.
While they still mourned the death of John Henry, the family was able to look forward to a happy event, the marriage of Frederic's younger sister Emma Jane. She was by all accounts an attractive young woman, and her family's wealth appeared to be assured. Her suitor was a shy young man named Robert Hallowell Gardiner, who had come into a fortune by chance. His father, Robert Hallowell, had been collector of taxes for the port of Boston before the War of Independence, and had fled to England in 1776. Robert was born in Bristol in 1782, and his family moved back to Boston the same year. When he was six years old, his maternal grandfather, Dr. Silvester Gardiner, who owned a very large estate on the Kennebec River, in Maine, died, leaving everything to Robert's uncle William. A year later, William died and left everything to Robert, provided he agreed to change his name to Gardiner. He would come into his inheritance on his twenty-second birthday.
Robert had studied at Harvard, and when he first met Emma Tudor, he was a member of the New England elite, a very eligible young man. His marriage to Emma was a great match for the Tudors, and would turn out to be vital for the new trade Frederic and William were about to embark upon. Though they fell out in later life, Robert Gardiner would be the very best friend and supporter Frederic could have hoped for in the years ahead. It was in the heady atmosphere of the summer of 1805, when the wedding was celebrated with picnics and parties on the Tudors' Rockwood estate, that Frederic and William finally decided to embark on the venture they had talked about for some time.
Emma had married Robert on June 25, 1805. A few weeks later, Frederic bought a leather-bound farmer's almanac and inscribed on the cover the title "Ice House Diary," above a crude drawing of the kind of icehouse, if not the very one, the family had at Rockwood. He also wrote the inscription "He who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow, despairs of success, has never been, is not, and never will be, a hero in love, war or business." It is probable he added that later, inscribing it as if in stone on the illustration of the icehouse, for he had absolutely no idea in 1805 of the trials he was to face over the next ten years.
The first entry in the diary, written in Frederic's spidery hand, reads: "Plan etc for transporting Ice to Tropical Climates. Boston Augst 1st 1805 William and myself have this day determined to get together what property we have and embark in the undertaking of carrying ice to the West Indies the ensuing winter." There is a note written later to the effect that William was not very enthusiastic, and had to be persuaded that it was worth giving the venture a try.
A Tudor family legend had it that it was, in the first place, William's idea. It would have been typical of him, as he was full of hare-brained schemes that came to nothing, and in his privately published autobiography, Early Recollections, Robert Gardiner remembered William, at a picnic, suggesting selling ice to the West Indies. To the end of his life, Frederic disputed this, and maintained that it was his inspiration. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was without doubt Frederic who took the idea seriously, and who dedicated his life to making it work.
The second entry in the diary is for August 12. Frederic writes that he is off on a trip with his cousin James Savage to visit Niagara Falls, and expects to return in October. In the meantime, he and William had been laying plans for the shipment of ice that winter. They had realized they would need substantial financial backing, and hoped they might be able to persuade the U.S. Congress to grant them a monopoly in the trade, for once everyone in Boston saw how profitable the shipping of ice was, there would be immediate and damaging competition.
Puffed up with youthful enthusiasm and naoveti, Frederic could not imagine that such a brilliant scheme could fail to make him and his brother a fortune. His excitement leaps from the pages of his diary as he drafts a letter to a business associate of his father, Harrison Gray Otis, a distinguished Bostonian and U.S.
Excerpted from Frozen-Water Trade by Gavin Weightman Copyright © 2003 by Gavin Weightman. Excerpted by permission.
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