The Ice Industry: An American Phenomenon

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Ice museum owner Kim Smith has built a collection with pieces like this replica ice wagon and ice cards used in home delievery (inset).
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Custom-designed ice plows, markers and tools in Kim Smith's museum collection.
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From an 1870s engraving: floating ice blocks being pushed through a channel to the elevator.
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Reciprocating ice saw powered by a stationary engine.

As you reach into your refrigerator for that carton of milk, pound of hamburger or a cold beer, it’s pretty easy to take the process of refrigeration for granted.

Most of today’s population never knew it any other way.

But convenient refrigeration was not always available. From the time of the earliest colonial settlements, Americans experimented with various forms of cold storage (usually in the form of ice and snow) for food preservation. What ensued was the beginning of the natural ice industry.

Considered an “American phenomenon” by Joseph C. Jones Jr. in his book America’s Icemen, the natural ice industry boomed as the concepts of refrigeration became better understood. “By 1830 the use of ice to preserve food was commonplace,” he wrote. Eventually, the industry thrived and employed thousands.

The natural ice harvest

Harvesting operations were naturally based in the cold northern tier of the U.S., where river and lake ice were readily available. A typical harvest operation included cutting the ice into blocks (sometimes called “cakes”), transporting cut blocks by sleigh or floating them through channels and, finally, stacking them to the rafters of the icehouse. The size of the operation dictated how mechanized it was.

In rural communities, the ice harvest was eagerly anticipated. In a cooperative community effort, labor, horse teams and sleighs were donated to help fill local icehouses. It was extremely hard work, but also a social activity that people looked forward to.

To fulfill the demand for ice in the cities, large scale commercial operations were necessary. A crew of 100 men and a dozen teams of horses would work an ice field while an additional 20 men stacked blocks in the icehouse. In some cases, a lake shore was lined with multiple icehouses and harvesting operations. When the local workforce was inadequate, outside workers were transported in to get the job done.

Where possible, ice was loaded directly onto railcars for shipping. Sometimes the railroad itself used the ice for shipping perishables or to cool passenger cars.  Transporting ice to the Southern states (by rail or water) was common, but dramatically increased the cost of ice. At $20 to $75 per ton, ice was a commodity only the very wealthy could afford. Everyone else did without. Understandably, the advent of manufactured ice and, later, electric refrigeration, took hold first in the South.

Tools of the ice harvest trade

As the demand for ice grew, tools to improve the efficiency of the harvest were developed. Nathaniel I Wyeth of Boston is credited with inventing the ice plow in 1825. Drawn by a horse, the plow was made up of cutting teeth fitted in a straight line, with each tooth being just a little longer than the one in front of it. It was steered by plow handles along a straight line marked on the ice.

With each successive pass of a longer-toothed plow, a groove was plowed a few inches deeper than before, to a depth of about two-thirds the thickness of the ice. The thickness of the ice determined how many passes the plows had to make. An additional 1-1/2 to 2 inches of depth could be gained with each pass, depending on how many teeth the plow had.

An ice plow with short teeth was called a marker plow, and was used to mark the area in a grid pattern. The marker plow had a guide attached to it to keep each line parallel with the next. Chisels, hooks, saws, sieves, break-off bars and tongs added to the large-scale efficiency of the harvest operation.

After a field had been marked and plowed, channels were opened and a few blocks were cut out by hand to open the field. Large sheets were pried or sawed free and floated toward the icehouse, where the sheets were again sawed into more manageable blocks.

The most prominent tool manufacturers of the era were W.T. Wood & Co., of Arlington, Mass., and Gifford Brothers, of Hudson, N.Y. Later, the two companies merged, creating the Gifford-Wood line of tools.

But as the natural ice business began to wane, the need for tools and equipment also disappeared. Most manufacturers went out of business by the 1920s.

An ice harvester’s story

At 81, Vern Kraemer remembers the business end of an ice saw. In a task he describes as “just plain hard work,” his memories of his family’s annual ice harvest include hand cutting 2-foot-thick ice into 16-inch blocks.

Three men cut the ice, loaded it onto a lumber wagon with tongs and rope, and then transported it a mile to the icehouse. Blocks were packed in sawdust in a 10-foot deep earthen cellar covered by a log icehouse. The ice lasted through the following summer and fall.

Cutting ice off Box Elder Creek south of Nemo, S.D., during the 1930s and 1940s was the only means of providing refrigeration for the family icebox and the pop cooler at the filling station next door. Rural electrification didn’t come to this remote part of the Black Hills until the early 1950s.

Ice block delivery

As summer approached, ice delivery shifted into high gear. The iceman (usually last winter’s coal man) peddled ice door-to-door using a horse and wagon.

Housewives left a sign in the window, letting the iceman know how much he should deliver. Ice wagons had a scale mounted at the rear, but icemen – adept at guessing the weight of an ice block – seldomly used them.

Children loved to see the iceman come by on a hot summer day. Their mothers, though, greeted his arrival with mixed emotions: The delivery inevitably resulted in a wet, muddy mess on the kitchen floor.

The end of the natural ice era

The switch to manufactured, “artificial” ice was gradual. Early ice-making technology was inefficient and slow to develop. Natural ice was marketed as a superior product, even though it was often cut from contaminated bodies of water. But by 1920, with increasing availability of electricity and a greater demand for refrigeration, natural ice could no longer compete with artificial ice.

As with each advancement in technology, the “old way” is put to rest. As with the horse-drawn plow and the steam tractor, the natural ice industry succumbed to greater demands and improved technology. Another era in our history had ended. FC

Denise J. Smith lives in Rapid City, S.D., where she is a freelance writer.

Old Ice House Museum Celebrates Ice Harvests of Yesteryear

The long-forgotten natural ice era came back to life recently with the opening of the Old Ice House Museum in Rapid City, S.D. A museum that honors the art of making ice the old-fashioned way, it is one of just a handful of ice museums in the U.S.

Kim Smith, history buff and collector, created the museum in an empty corner of his Rapid City ice plant. The museum features displays of tools and memorabilia of the natural ice industry. The collection of 300 items is growing daily.

Horse-drawn markers and ice plows are set in a life-size diorama of a lake surface backed by a mural depicting an ice harvest in progress. A collection of hand tools – saws, tongs, hooks and even cleated horseshoes – is also on display. Visitors get a clear idea of the back-breaking labor required by the turn-of-the-century harvest operations. Technology has made a difference, Kim said.

“Ice hasn’t gotten any lighter over the years,” he said, “but it did get a little easier.”

Also on display are large items such as a replica of an ice delivery wagon, and a 1928 Ford Model AA ice truck. The collection is rounded out with a variety of antique iceboxes, refrigerators, toy ice trucks, signs, photos and other memorabilia.

The museum, which just opened this summer, has already generated considerable interest. Visitors have shared their recollections of long-ago ice harvests, and one caller donated a real ice wagon in need of only minor restoration. The wagon, which has been added to the museum’s collection, will be featured in various Rapid City events this summer. – Denise J. Smith

For more information: The Old Ice House Museum at Rapid Crystal Ice Co., 1703 E. St. Patrick St., Rapid City, SD, 57701; (605) 342-0305.
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