By Audrey Warren
The Wall Street Journal
December 29, 2003
Franklin has the only house on the block covered with snow, but it isn't Mother Nature who paid Franklin a visit, it was John Carpenter.
The owner of a modest family-run ice-delivery company in Houston, Carpenter has found an increasingly popular calling in the warm-weather region -- snow blowing. While people in the North may grumble when it arrives and spend a fortune on its removal, Houstonians and other Southerners are paying big bucks for a blanket of white.
Carpenter and his Ice Express are much sought after in this snow-challenged state, especially around the holidays. Each year at this time, he lugs around a large machine that can grind a 300-pound block of ice into flakes in 20 seconds.
Using a hose on the side, he then blows the pulverized ice into man-made snow hills and snow flats in yards, parks and community centers.
A Dallas convention center hired Carpenter to trek more than 500 miles round trip to blow 281,700 pounds of snow for its annual "snowfest" last month. He did a similar job in Austin. Chambers of commerce get it dumped in neighborhoods for community events, while Houstonians like Franklin have it spread in their yards for decoration.
The 200 guests invited to Chuck and Andrea Gossett's home in Houston for their annual Christmas party stroll up the sidewalk through almost 10 inches of snow.
"He just paints the front yard with it," Gossett said. Carpenter already delivered 20,000 pounds of snow there this month. "People in the North would think we're crazy," he said.
For the average homeowner or community wishing to turn a drab yard into a winter wonderland, an order of 15,000 pounds of snow from Ice Express runs $1,150 and covers 710 square feet. The amount for the Dallas convention center costs $30,000. The coating generally melts after two or three days in Houston's balmy climate.
Every year, orders for the glacial garnish increase. Ice Express went from selling 2,000 300-pound blocks of ice (in snow form) when Carpenter first started snow blowing in 1999, to 16,000 blocks last year. In all, he dispensed more than four million pounds of ice last year as snow.
This year, he increased the minimum order for deliveries on Saturdays in December, the busiest days, to 20,000 pounds from 12,000 pounds last year, and he is pretty much booked solid.
"I have people screaming at me because I can't bring them snow," he said.
The 54-year-old originally started his business as just an ice-delivery company, selling crushed and cocktail ice to restaurants and vendors at rodeos and sporting events.
The Dallas-based Reddy Ice Holdings Inc. is the largest manufacturer and distributor of ice in the country and supplies Carpenter's ice. The company used to shut down one of its two Houston ice-making plants each winter when demand was low, but for the past two years one plant has started leaving a storage freezer open because of the amount of ice Mr. Carpenter uses.
"In the old days, you sold ice in the summer time and wood in the winter," Carpenter said. "We used to scratch our heads about what to do in December."
Deluge of orders
Texas isn't the only state where there's a market for manufactured snow.
There are ice companies in Arizona, Florida and Georgia supplying the demand for frosty trappings, too. In Tempe, Ariz., last December, more than 5,000 children showed up to throw snowballs and build miniature snowmen in the 20 tons of snow dumped at Tempe Beach Park. The ambient temperature averaged 55 degrees.
Gene Oliver, the owner of Arizona Iceman, supplies fake snow to the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and between December and January last year used almost 1,000 tons of the cold stuff, charging $150 a ton.
In Miami, Gary Hendler, owner of Royal Palm City Ice, had 140 orders for snow between November and February and averaged about 12 tons a job. He charges $150 to $200 a ton depending on factors like how far he must drive to deliver.
M & M Ice in Cairo, Ga., just started trying snow blowing. The ice-manufacturing company has four employees including owner David Hildebrandt. The machines NATOt uses now to blow snow formerly were used to grind ice to spray over produce for delivery companies.
'A funny sight'
Residents in Houston rarely see the real stuff. In the past 30 years, Houston has seen little more than four-tenths of an inch, plus trace amounts, of snow. Surrounding areas are similarly snow-deprived.
Angleton, Texas, a small city about 45 miles south of Houston, averaged 55 degrees in December last year. For its Christmas On The Square festival this year, the city ordered 24,000 pounds of snow that Carpenter sprayed into a hill for children to slide down. They were left in the lurch last year after a hunt for snow sleds for the hill proved fruitless; they resorted to cardboard boxes.
But they are prepared this year, having ordered 12 bright orange and lime-green snow discs online over the summer.
"If you want snow down here, you've got to buy it, because it's not going to come out of the sky," said LeAnn Strahan, who works in the city's parks department.
In Houston, Franklin sometimes has to keep a watchful eye on his yard full of snow to make sure the neighborhood children don't trample it down too much before his 3-year-old goddaughter gets there to play.
"It'll be 65 degrees and when these mothers see the [snow] truck, their kids come waddling down the street in these snow suits sometimes -- it's a funny sight," Franklin said. "This is the last placed they'd be dressed up like that."