“Jim Bath died,” Jock said quietly. So quietly, in fact, I had to ask him to repeat it. He picked me up from work, and we were walking south on Front Street between Market and Dock, just a block diagonal from where the Ice House used to stand.
“Where did you hear that?” I asked skeptically.
“It was in the news,” he said. His voice choked up. “Some things you just don’t really believe when you first hear them.”
“Well, it was a helluva a life well-lived.” It’s all I could think to say.
Back home we raised a glass to Jim, toasting his full life. Jock shook his head and grinned, recalling a crazy scheme involving the Liberty ship anchors. During World War II, Wilmington was one of 18 construction sites for the Liberty ship fleets. Always on the lookout for another opportunity, Jim realized when the Liberty ships were scrapped, they were cut from their anchors and hauled away. He rationalized the anchors would still be there and would be worth a small fortune in scrap metal. He and a few friends set out to recover them. The resulting funds were part of the seed money he brought to the Ice House.
Jim “Mr. Ice House” Bath lived a life right out of a Hemingway novel: on his own terms with dreams and stories too big to be believed. By most reports, he appeared in Wilmington around the ‘80s, but no one can really pinpoint it. Prior to his tenure here, Jim had been on the West Coast where he had operated a maritime store and, like here, he had an assortment of projects and schemes at any given time. The stories of his exploits at parties with the rich and famous were part and parcel of the Jim Bath experience. Some believed them, some didn’t.
But Jordan Rhodes, film industry veteran, actually corroborated Jim’s stories—at least the ones about David Carradine. Rhodes recalls the day they discovered they had crossed paths many times without realizing it.
“Jim and I would spend a lot of time spinning our various ‘tales,’ and I discovered that Jim had a connection to Hollywood,” he says. “One day while we were talking, he received a phone call from David Carradine. After Jim hung up the phone, he asked me if I knew David. I told him how I didn’t actually know David, but [that] one night I was at a party in the Hollywood Hills, up off Laurel Canyon. David and John Drew Barrymore—Drew Barrymore’s dad—got into a fight and went crashing through a window out onto the ground below the cantilevered house. Jim looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I was at that party!’ And he was! He and David had been friends for years. So, if you happen to be one of the people that heard a ‘Jim Bath Story,’ but wasn’t sure if it was fact or fiction—believe it!”
While his stories entertain, his most lasting accomplishment was when he teamed up with Joe Carney to open the iconic, well-loved and much-missed Ice House. Mike Raab, former publisher of The Beat magazine, summed up the Ice House:
“Open air to stretch out in, a view of the Cape Fear [River] that was postcard ready, a meeting of friends over a cool brew or two, music that stretched from folk to blues to rock to flamenco, and then some.”
Later, “Dawson’s Creek” made it internationally famous. But it was already an iconic and integral part of life here.
Yet, all good things must come to an end, including the Ice House. It is a loss still felt to this day. Though Jim was a fixture at the Ice House, his exploits at The Rusty Nail remained just as prominent. There, he lived for a while in the walk-in cooler, and his 80th birthday—complete with a “Lady of Negotiable Affection”—remains the stuff of legend.
Lan Nichols recalls the life of the Cape Fear Blues Society (CFBS) after The Ice House. Jay and Lee Kapner had altered the Yellow Rose Saloon on Market Street from a country and western bar into Johnny Rockit’s Rhythm and Sports Bar. Nichols experienced a series of events in early 2000 that proved serendipitous at its best.
“Rockit’s owner/businessman extraordinaire Jay Kapner had confided in me that he was considering a conversion of the bar to an event facility and banquet room, given the area’s lack thereof,” Nichols recalls.
A few days later, Jim came to the blues jam with Sandy Williams and Troy Carlisle, who were planning to open The Rusty Nail on 5th Avenue. When Williams asked Nichols if the blues jam would come to the Rusty Nail, Jim Bath jumped in.
“Jim whispered to me ‘Lan, these are good people doing good things for local musicians,’” Nichols remembers. With Jim’s support vocalized, Nichols later talked about it with Kapner, and garnered his blessing.
“The rest is history: 800-plus blues jams, tens of thousands of patrons. Fourteen years later, we remain a welcoming fixture in the culture of our region,” Nichols says.
Coming up this weekend, on Sunday, April 27th, is a 10-year reunion in honor of the Ice House. Mike Raab started thinking about the idea when he came across a picture of the demolition from 2004. He wanted to get some of the musicians together to not only enjoy great music but really celebrate the Ice House’s essence.
“We decided to have the event as close to the old Ice House location as possible, and owner Harper Peterson kindly donated Delphina Dos for the occasion,” Raab divulges.
Musical acts will include The Studebakers, Gary Allen, Michael Wolfe and the Wolfe Gang, Tommy B. and The Stingers, Mojo Collins, New Riders of Calamity, David Walen, and Tom Donaldson. Joe Carney, co-founder of the Ice House will open the event with a memorial to Jim Bath and the Ice House. The event is also a fundraiser for Monty’s Home for Canine Rescue. It seems somehow fitting, to remember Wilmington’s favorite stray pet, a man of fierce loyalties and fabulous adventures, with a musical fundraiser for a rescue shelter.
So, next Sunday take a stroll down Water Street, past the vacant lot that has sat empty for 10 years just to remind us what once had been, and come into Delphina Dos for some great music and friendship. Jim Bath passed away at 90, and for almost a third of his life, Wilmington had him, and he had Wilmington. It’s a lucky man who can say that.