|A Story from the Big River Reader|
Ice Harvesting the Old-Fashioned Way
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
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.
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.
The La Crosse Tribune of January 23,
1905, reported that a "Dastardly Deed Endangers the Lives
of Many Workmen."
© 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.