When he would leave for work each day George Ortolano could rightfully say that he was off to see the wizard. He could have gone one step further and said that he was off to make the wizard. Ortolano, who died at 86 in 2002, was a craftsman who never got the publicity he deserved. He created a machine that triggered a native industry. He’s the guy who invented the mass-marketed snoball machine that made it possible for the industry to grow.
His creation, the Ortolano Sno-Wizard, was not the only ice crusher on the market, but it was the one used at nearly all local snoball stands.
In New Orleans, snoballs are a serious business and routine ice machines won’t do. A New Orleans snoball differs from the miserable snow cones sold at traveling carnivals and in other more deprived localities in that the ice is finer, a true snowy blend. In 1937, Ortolano created the first Snow-Wizard machine and began using it to make snoballs at his grocery on the corner of Magazine and Delchaise streets. His machine was a rectangular box with a door in the front for loading the ice that would be pushed toward the grinders inside by a crank at the back. The original Sno-Wizard had a wooden cabinet. Its successors have been made of stainless steel. The machines got their wiz from a cutter head that featured a triple-headed beveled blade that rapidly scraped the ice into a powder.
“There was no machine on the market that could do the job mine was doing,” Ortolano once told me. “Mine could shoot the snow right into the cup. In ten seconds it could fill a 16-ounce cup.” Like the impact Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin had on farming, the Sno-Wizard changed snoballs from a sweet shop knickknack to the object of a proliferation of neighborhood businesses.
“Before I made the machine,” Ortolano explained, “people couldn’t go to all that expense because the number of snoballs they could make with one of the old obsolete machines wouldn’t pay them to go into it. But with my machine, a person can push enough snoballs to make a profitable business. The machine revolutionized the snoball business. It made snoballs a business. It brought it to the front.”
It also transformed Ortolano’s store into what became a full-time snoball provisions business as well as the factory for Sno-Wizards. Marketed in excess of $1000, a Sno-Wizard was the critical investment for would-be snoball entrepreneurs.
Uptown New Orleans would become the epicenter for snoball evolution.
THE FINEST ICE
Before Ernest Hansen left for work each summer morning in 1939 he would first set up the ice crushing machine he had made for his wife Mary’s fledgling snoball business. Hansen’s machine made an ice that was finer than what even the clouds could produce. Mary Hansen spent plenty time in the kitchen making what, without fear of overstating, would be the most flavorful snoball syrup ever.
On the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Bourdeaux streets, not far from where Ortolano’s business once stood, is the renowned snoball stand that housed Ernest Hansen’s Sno-Bliz machine.
As their business outgrew the shade of the Mulberry tree, the Hansen’s eventually moved to the cinderblock location which is now, literally, an Uptown landmark. They’ve served snoballs made from his machine for nearly 60 years. Unlike Ortolano’s invention, Hansen’s was barrel shaped. And while Ortolano mass marketed his machine, Hansen’s was exclusive to his shop as were wife Mary’s self-made syrups. Since the couple’s death in 2005, the machine, and the business, have stayed in the hands of family members spearheaded by granddaughter Ashley Hansen. Arguably Ernest Hansen’s Sno-Bliz machine makes the finest manufactured snow ever. One day the machine belongs in the Smithsonian, but not too soon. There are still lots of snoballs to be made.
For those snoball stands denied their own in-house craftsmen, however, the Ortolano’s Sno-Wizard would be the answer. With that, and splashes of commercially made syrup, small-time investors could be in business.
“Ortolano was a true craftsman,” a snoball vendor once told me. “If someone wanted him to just slap a sharpening job on a machine, he was not going to do it. Each machine and each set of blades that he puts in, he was going to try to make as good as any other set. That’s how proud of his work he was.”
His legacy is now an industry. A company called Sno Wizard, located at 101 River Road, is the core of the business. It makes and sells the machine as well as snoball paraphernalia. Probably just about any snoball made locally today, except for Hansens’, is produced with a Sno Wizard.
Oh, that child that Mary Hansen was pregnant with was Gerad Hansen. He would pursue a legal career and in 1978 was elected to a judgeship. He tells the story that he trailed significantly in the primary. For the runoff, someone suggested that he should put his parents, by then famous for their snoballs, on the radio. He won. There are all sorts of ways that people can achieve power in politics, including snoball power.
Praise to the inventors who were able to turn ice into gold.
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