Tom Ying’s Refrigerator

Tom Ying’s Refrigerator (1931), from the
collection of the Hillsboro Historical Society's
Black Range Museum.  The article below was inspired
by this refrigerator and is reprinted from the February
issue of the Hillsboro Historical Society Newsletter.

Its Cold Inside - Hillsboro Refrigeration

On September 26, 1931, Fleischer Studios released a Betty Boop cartoon entitled “Minding The Baby”.  It contains the wonderful line “the ice man still brings ice you see, but our ice box runs with ‘tricity”.”  The world was changed dramatically by electricity, including - perhaps - a need for “the ice man” to be more discreet.

In 1930, a power plant (pictured below) was constructed in Hillsboro to generate electricity.1  It is now a private residence.  It may be difficult to imagine now, but this home once housed coal, and later, diesel generators to provide the county seat of Hillsboro with the juice to run all of those new electric appliances.  

Once the electric generation station for Hillsboro,
this is now a private residence.
Photo from August 21, 2013.

Various companies were competing for service areas.  The electric company in Las Cruces was selling appliances in Hillsboro in 1931.  Sierra Electric Cooperative was formed in 1941 with its headquarters in Hillsboro, five years after the county seat had moved to Hot Springs (1936). By April 1947 the Cooperative was duking it out with the Town of Hot Springs in the New Mexico Supreme Court.  A little matter of jurisdiction.2  

The powerhouse remained in operation until 1952.  Without this bit of history the rest of this story could not be told.

Fred Luna

Electricity brought significant changes to Hillsboro.  The following is transcribed from the video interview of Federico Antonio Chavez Luna (photo right).3

    Barnes: “When did electricity come to Hillsboro?”

    Luna: “…I don’t remember.  Bob Kinock was the one who built the building, from El Paso, and put up two motors up there
    for the lights.  They would repair one motor, run it for a month, then they would stop it and start the other one, repair it
    and start it - that’s where we would get the light.”  

Tom YingDSC09959

    Barnes: “What was it like before?”

    Luna: “…that’s about it, kerosene light, I still got mine back in my trailer…”

In other discussions Luna told the author about the flickering lights and the limited hours of operation, but - even with those disincentives - it was the wave of the future.  

One of the people who knew it was the future was Tom Ying4 (pictured to the right, on the left).  Ying was the owner/operator of a restaurant in Hillsboro and on or about May 18, 1931, he purchased a refrigerator from the electric company.  The salesperson was named Hudson Murrell, an employee of the electric company.  In the spring of 1995, Jay Jackson conducted an interview with Murrell about that sale.5  Murrell noted that he had sold the “biggest electric refrigerator in the county” to Ying.  An extract of Jackson’s piece on the interview, in which he quotes Murrell (pictured to the right at that time of the interview) provides this account of the transaction:

…“I ordered one for him - he said the bigger the better - but, when I asked for a down payment on the $600 ‘fridge, he backed down…the fellas said Tom Ying wouldn’t cheat anyone, he’s A-1, but don’t push him or you’ll hurt his feelings.  He didn’t pay a dime until we had it running.  Then he went to the back porch, picked up a board and pulled out $600.”…

…As a district supervisor of sales, he regularly drove the company’s Ford panel truck up through Hatch to Hillsboro - a three-hour round trip - to read meters and peddle appliances like well pumps, ranges and water heaters.  “Those were the days when we did everything…I’d have to sell enough equipment to justify building lines to outlying areas.”…

…By the late 1920’s, Hillsboro, though still the Sierra County seat, was a small town of about 200…”What I remember most about Tom Ying was that he read Chinese newspapers and told lots of stories, and had good Chinese food!”…

That short bit of narrative tells us a lot about the early 1930’s in Hillsboro.  First of all, $600 was probably a lot of money, but what was it worth in “today’s money”.  That is difficult to say and I will not tackle that here.  The issues are myriad.  For instance, a simple application of the inflation rate from 1931 to 2017 yields a figure of $9,662.616, a figure which misrepresents to the high side - but it is clear, $600 was a lot of money and the porch was a safe place to keep it.

It only took Murrell (pictured above in 1995) three hours for a round-trip from Las Cruces to Hillsboro in the early 1930’s.  Seems he was a pretty fast driver, for a Ford Panel Truck, and the roads of that time - on the other hand, maybe things have not changed very much at all.

And what is this about the electric company selling refrigerators?  Murrell captured the economics of the time succinctly.  Electricity was new to those “out-lying areas” and it cost money to generate electricity at those locations or to build transmission/distribution lines to get electricity to them.  So the electricity companies of the time would sell you anything that ran on electricity.  They were in fact major sellers of electric goods at the time.  Creating load was a major part of their business plans.

And what did Ying buy, exactly.  The refrigerator, pictured below, is on display at the Black Range Museum.  It is an oak cabinet with a Kelvinator cooling unit behind the upper left door, which is covered by a mirror; all of the other doors are of framed glass.  

Home refrigerators were invented in 1913.  Kelvinator was founded in 1914 and originally manufactured ice-boxes.  It sold its first refrigerator in February 1918.7  Before 1930, refrigerators could be dangerous and were for the wealthy.  Dangerous?  Prior to 1930, refrigerants like sulphur dioxide, which can cause loss of vision and burns, and methyl formate, which is toxic if inhaled or ingested, were used.  These dangers were real, not in the realm of “could happen”  but rather in the realm of did happen. In 1930 less toxic refrigerants, fluorocarbons (you know, the ozone killers) were introduced.


Tom Ying’s refrigerator was a modern unit.  Not only was it much safer than the earlier refrigerators but the Kelvinator cooling unit was able to produce ice cubes (photos below).  Prior to this time, refrigerators were about keeping things cool, not freezing them.

But this is not a Kelvinator refrigerator; that would be too easy and miss the dynamics of the times.  It was “equipped with Kelvinator Electric Refrigeration”.  In this case, the Kelvinator unit was placed into a wooden cabinet constructed by another company.  

Paperwork on the inside of the door to the cooling unit indicates that the this refrigerator was a product of the Ligonier Refrigerator Company of Ligonier, Indiana (Catalog No. 223, Serial No. 30083).  Ligonier, McCray, Alaska, and several other companies converted their old ice boxes into refrigerators by installing cooling units.  Other companies specialized in building refrigerators to order.  When was the last time you had a custom-built refrigerator? These are beautiful pieces of furniture, cutting edge technology, expensive, and a sign of the changing times.  Ice cubes in the summer, imagine.

It is sometimes very easy to take what we have for granted.  Electricity brought light to Luna, ice on demand to Ying, and changed Hillsboro in fundamental ways.  An oak refrigerator captures the essence of it all.  Not dramatic perhaps, but without it Hillsboro would not have been able to hold on to its county seat status for a few more years.  Without it, Hillsboro would really be a ghost town.

The Black Range Museum, owned and operated by the Hillsboro Historical Society, has several rooms of artifacts and an ever-growing collection in its archives.  Each has a story to tell; learning that story is what history is all about.

I would like to express my appreciation to Max Yeh, Barbara Lovell, and Garland Bills for their review of this article.  I also wish to acknowledge the special effort made by Barbara Lovell and Garland Bills in providing access to the refrigerator and various source material.


  1. The construction of the power plant was part of the use of technology for political, not just social, purposes.  For other examples, see “Technology, Politicos, and the Decline of a Sierra County Seat: Hillsboro, 1884-1939”, James B. Sullivan, Southern New Mexico Historical Review, Volume IX, No. 1, January 2002 
  2. “The supreme court of New Mexico affirmed a judgement denying an injunction to an electric cooperative restraining a municipality from acquiring electric facilities in areas beyond its corporate limits, where a cooperative had prior rights, since the cooperative had no plant or transmission lines and the contract for their construction had never been let and the municipality had not contracted for such purchase, there could be no irreparable damages so essential to support a right to injunctive relief.  It was noted that the mere fact that the municipality would be engaging in an act beyond its authority did not alone entitle the cooperative to complain.  Sierra Electric Cooperative v. Hot Springs, 180 P2d 244.”  p. 328 (Aug. 28, 1947) of Public Utilities Fortnightly Volume XL, Public Utilities Reports, Inc., Washington, D.C.  Electric utilities were jockeying for territory and the selling of electric appliances was part of their overall strategy.
  3. View: Federico Antonio Chavez Luna Interview 
  4. For more information about Tom Ying see: Guajalotes, Zopilotes, y Paisanos, May 2016, Volume 9, Number 2 “The Black Range Museum” pp. 4-7 by Harley Shaw, Garland Bills, and Barbara Lovell and “Tom Ying’s meal tickets - Chinese translated”  by Max Yeh.
  5. Jay Jackson’s account, dated August 9, 1995, is part of the archives at the Hillsboro Historical Society’s Black Range Museum.  The date of the transaction is set by a hand written note on the inside of the refrigerator door.
  6. $600 in 1931 → 2017 | Inflation Calculator.” FinanceRef Inflation Calculator, Alioth Finance, 14 Jan. 2018,
  7. “Domestic refrigerators: recent developments” by Radermacher & Kim. p. 61

© Robert Barnes 2018