Our Stories, Our History: Armand Montz Sr.’s ice plant and vegetable packing

Published 12:08 am Saturday, April 30, 2016

LAPLACE — When 20-year-old Criminal Justice major Aaron Montz cuts the grass on his family’s property, he occasionally runs over wild onions that grow there.

Armand Montz Sr. shipped under his own label, left, and is credited as the first to successfully freeze okra and corn on the cob for commercial consumption.

Armand Montz Sr. shipped under his own label, above, and is credited as the first to successfully freeze okra and corn on the cob for commercial consumption.

“The smell’s so strong it almost makes me cry,” Aaron said.

The pungent aroma is a bold reminder of his heritage, for on that land, his great-grandfather Armand Montz Sr.’s ice plant and vegetable packing house once stood.

The seed for the ice plant was the vegetable garden he began next to his father’s when Armand was 18 years old.

In addition to selling these vegetables, he and his brother Octave owned “O. Montz & Bros,” a local mercantile business. The dissolution of that partnership appeared in the May 1, 1915 edition of L’OBSERVATEUR and stated the reason: “Armand is withdrawing in order to give more attention to the new industry which he has recently launched at LaPlace and which is revolutionizing the whole community — raising, packing and buying of all kinds of vegetables.”

“He leased property from the Woodland Planting & Manufacturing company to expand his vegetable farm to include shallots, radishes, beets, carrots, lettuce and many other vegetables.

“Shallots would become his big cash crop for many years,” Gerard Montz, local historian and grandson of Armand, said.

That tract of land is presently the area between John L. Ory School and the Main Street and stretches to I-10.

Initially Armand purchased ice from Kenner to cover the produce that he packed into crates and shipped in iced box cars. In 1921, on the street now named Ice Plant Road off of West Fifth in LaPlace, he built an ice factory. According to an article published that same year in the L’OBSERVATEUR, the factory had a daily output of 15 tons of ice with the capacity to store 40 tons.

Ice was frozen in 300-pound blocks, then crushed and their flakes sprayed over vegetables packed in railroad cars. Large blocks of ice were placed in bunkers atop train cars. This process allowed fresh produce to reach cities including Memphis, Chicago and Indianapolis.

Other industries grew from Armand’s ice plant.

“He drilled wells for the ice plant’s water,” Gerard said. “Soon he was providing water to the surrounding community which led to Montz Waterworks, operated until 1974, when it was taken over by the St. John Parish waterworks system.”

Additionally, the diesel generators he used produced so much power that in a letter dated May 14, 1923, the St. John the Baptist Parish Police Jury gave Montz the right to string wires to provide electrical energy for his plant and homes from Garyville to St. Rose. In 1927, Louisiana Power & Light bought his energy business.

“In 1923, he bought 600 acres from Woodland Planting & Manufacturing Company,” Gerard said. “On a handshake, the deal was done. Armand began growing and shipping vegetables on an even bigger scale.”

Renovations to his packing house began in 1939 so that he could pack and ship frozen vegetables nationwide. Besides vegetables such as okra, turnip greens and broccoli, Armand shipped shrimp and okra gumbo, as well as frozen shrimp. The industry grew to include a fleet of refrigerated trucks to distribute these products.

“He was also the first to use rubber tires on tractors,” Aaron said. “Before that the tractors had iron rims that would tear up the road.”

The frozen food operation was phased out between 1958 to 1963 as sugar cane began to replace the vegetable crops. It was grown until Armand died in 1968.

The following year, much of the farm was sold to the T.L. James Company. Despite the commercialization of the land, Gerard can’t help but wonder if there is evidence of its early beginnings: “I wonder if someone in Summerlin subdivision ever sees an okra plant spring up in their backyard. Do they realize where that came from?”

By Ronny Michel