A Story from the Big River Reader

Big River Home Page

Big River Reader

Big River Subscription Info

Big River Bookshelf

More Stories



Ice Harvesting the Old-Fashioned Way

By Gene Purcell
January 1995

In the days before mechanical refrigeration, the ice on rivers and ponds was a crop. When January rolled around and the ice was ripe, it was time to harvest. Ice harvested from Midwestern rivers, lakes and ponds served many purposes during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The growing meat packing and brewing industries needed it. People needed ice at home, too. Iceboxes - large wooden coolers using blocks of ice - were common well into the 1930s and 40s.

Most people today would have trouble harvesting their own ice. In fact, few would know where to begin. Therefore, I will bring the 1990's art of business consulting to the 1890's art of harvesting ice and tell you how to start your own ice business.

First, we have to wait for winter. This is important since all of the best natural ice is found in northern states, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, where winters are long and cold.
Next, find a suitable ice field. This may have been a problem 100 years ago, because ice dealers would already have specific fields they used year after year, but in 1994 those fields should be readily available. You must keep in mind factors like water quality and aeration. Ponds were often avoided because the water didn't move enough to provide aeration and formed what was called "pond ice," murky ice with holes in it that was of poor quality for cooling purposes. Most people looked for shallow, slow moving water, which would form solid, clear ice.

After locating the perfect ice field, you must work to keep it clear of snow, which tends to slow down the freezing process. To harvest ice the old fashioned way, I recommend using a horse-drawn plow to keep the ice clear of snow. Helpful hint: Make sure your ice field is solid enough to support men and horses, and be prepared to get them out when they fall in. Although horses wore special shoes to help pull equipment and to cut down on slippage, it was still common for them to fall through the ice. According to one history of the industry, horses wore ropes around their necks so that if a horse fell in, the driver could pull the rope tight, cutting off air and causing the horse to stop struggling. Once the horse had calmed down, other horses would pull the animal (and driver) out.

The first step in harvesting is to mark the ice with a specially designed, horse-drawn "ice marker," which cuts lines several inches deep into the ice. Pictures of the process show that many harvesters cut blocks about two feet wide by six feet long. You can cut them any size you like, but for storage purposes, it's a good idea to make sure they are the same size.

The next step is to cut nearly through the ice using a horse-drawn "ice plow." Cut through the rest by hand, using a kind of cross-cut saw with a handle on only one end. Two people (or one really strong one) are needed to do the actual cutting, since sawing ice is just about as hard as it sounds.
Now, using a variety of tools that bear a remarkable resemblance to medieval weapons, you break the blocks apart, set them free and start them on their journey.

Floating Ice

Oh, hey, I forgot to mention that you'll need to float your ice to a place where you can get it out of the water. I hear you saying, "It's winter and the water's frozen, so how do we get the ice blocks to float?"

Good question! The answer is both simple and time consuming. You must cut a channel through the ice, wide enough to float the ice cakes through. A La Crosse Tribune article from January 1905 described the procedure.

"The ice is being marked and cut between Black River and Colman's Slough and has to be poled through a six-hundred-foot canal, which is a great handicap to speed. Even with this handicap, thirty-five cakes of ice can be put in each minute."

In ten days, this ice crew cut 20,000 tons of ice.

Helpful hint: Depending on the weather, the ice channel may freeze over during the night. As a profit-motivated ice harvester, you'll have to decide whether to keep employees working through the night to keep the channel open, or take time in the morning to break it open again.

Until now, the work has been wet, cold, and difficult. Guess what? It doesn't get any easier. The next problem is to get the ice out of the water. With enough capital, you can afford a steam-powered conveyor system, which will lift the ice out of the water so it can be loaded onto sleighs or trucks.

Dastardly Deed

The La Crosse Tribune of January 23, 1905, reported that a "Dastardly Deed Endangers the Lives of Many Workmen."
It seems employees of the People's Ice Company were cutting ice at the foot of Cass Street in La Crosse. Instead of a steam-powered conveyor, they used heavy rope cables with a horse-powered block and pulley system to lift the ice out the water.
Manager Eugene Derr discovered that those heavy ropes had been cut almost all the way through. "Had the cable parted while the tons of ice was being hauled up the slide the entire mass would have crashed down with lightning speed onto the three men and teams employed at the bottom and would without question have crushed them to atoms before they could leap out of danger."
Helpful hint: Check your ropes before hauling tons of ice out of the water.
If you're really into this business, you have a specially constructed building to store ice through hot summer months. Put some type of insulating materials between the blocks to help insulate them and keep them from freezing together. The principle is that a whole bunch of ice in the same place will take a long time to melt.
In his book America's Icemen, Joseph Jones, Jr., shows photos of a huge ice house in New Jersey that burned back in 1912. Despite the intensity of the fire, piles of ice remained that took several weeks to melt!
By summer, people will be clamoring for ice. You'll deliver it in ice wagons, after cutting blocks in standard sizes to fit different iceboxes.
If this sounds complicated, remember, it is. Warm winters in the late 1880s almost killed the ice industry and helped speed the development of mechanical ice plants. "Pure" ice was considered a good thing - after all, how pure can ice be after horses walk all over it? Mechanical ice plants had problems with chemicals, though, so natural ice harvesting continued well into the 1930s.
In Onalaska, George Herrmann, a former alderman and county supervisor, bought his ice business in the 1930s and ran it until the late '30s and early '40s.
If you want to try harvesting your own ice, it's still possible with the right tools. In her history of Mindoro, Wisconsin, Mildred Allen outlines the process her family used in the early 20th century:
"In January the ice would be frozen strong enough to hold a team of horses and sleigh. The ice was cut in chunks about 15 inches all ways, depending on thickness of ice. The chunks were pulled out of the water and placed on a sleigh to be hauled home to the ice house, which was probably made of cement blocks. Sawdust was gotten from the saw mill to pack it in. It would not melt all summer."
There you go. Good luck and happy ice harvesting!

© 1995 Big River

Read more stories about life on the Upper Mississippi in the Big River Reader, an anthology of feature stories from the first four years of Big River newsletter. Check out the other featured stories for more about the river.