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Book review of "The Frozen Water Trade" by Gavin Weightman

The Frozen Water Trade is a true story about an industry few people in today’s modern day knew about. In fact, it was an industry that went from a dream by one man, to a struggle to get traction, to a necessity for the many customers, to extinct in just over 100 years.

The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story, by Gavin Weightman, is told from the perspective of Frederic Tudor, who many considered to be The Ice King.  Tudor had the vision and the drive to take a product that had been reserved only for the wealthy in cold climates, to the masses in the southern regions of the United States and abroad.

The winters in Massachusetts get very cold. The many ponds and lakes around Boston freeze to make relatively thick ice. Prior to Frederic Tudor, some of this ice was cut (or harvested) and stored in ice houses, which were not much more than wooden sheds at the time.  The ice could then used by some of Boston’s elite during the warmer summer months to cool down their drinks and keep fish fresh for more than a day.

Frederic Tudor had a vision that people outside of New England would also want their drinks cool, and would be willing to pay for it. Not just the wealthy elite class, but common people too.  And for a reasonable price.

The Frozen Water Trade is a fantastic historical account of the industry that is almost forgotten.  It also takes us on a great entrepreneurial journey about a time when the word ice didn’t exist in many parts of the world. It is about a man who had a vision and let nothing stop him until he saw his vision fulfilled.

Each part of the story is amazing in its own right:

  • What was this ice trade, and how come few people today ever heard of it?
  • How was Frederic Tudor the only person who had the vision to harvest the ice that was in abundance in Massachusetts, and sell it to people who would appreciate it in warmer climates?
  • Why did Frederic Tudor continue on his mission to try to sell ice, despite every setback thrown at him?  These challenges include the ridicule he received starting the trade, the debts that he incurred that even put him in jail, the damage to his ice shipping vessels in the unforgiving open oceans, the bribes to governments that proved to be meaningless (not much has changed, am I right?), the need to develop technology on the fly as he needed it, his employees cheating him, and many other obstacles.

The most important point that was that Frederic Tudor was just an ordinary man. His family had some money, but they didn’t have great financial sense.  Tudor didn’t buy himself into the ice business.  In fact, he spent the early years in debt as he pushed to prove that there is a market in delivering ice.  Nothing in Tudor’s past guaranteed that he would be a success.  His success was due to his hard work, and his utter determination to see his vision fulfilled.

Once Frederic Tudor proved the ice trade was a viable business, he soon had many competitors.  These competitors were nothing that really concerned Tudor.  Weightman writes about Tudor’s competitors and the effects they had in the ice trade.  But he ultimately circles back to telling the story from Tudor’s perspective.  After all, Frederic Tudor was The Ice King who dominated the trade.

The research that Gavin Weightman put into the book is not short of remarkable. Not much information exists on the ice trade, but Weightman was able to piece together a clear timeline from a number of abstract sources.

You could tell that Weightman had a challenge when writing from these many sources. At times, his writing style is forced, and it seems like he is trying to add color to otherwise dry topics and objective facts. That color just doesn’t work and makes his points difficult to comprehend at times, causing me to reread sections to understand what he meant.  But that difficulty was trivial, and only meant to let you know what to expect when you read The Frozen Water Trade.

All other elements of the this great book far outweigh Weightmans writing style.  The book is a great read, and the series of events are enough to keep you turning the page.  I highly recommend The Frozen Water Trade as a unique historical piece, a fascinating founder story, and a peak inside the life of a truly motivated entrepreneur.