Ice harvesting, which began in the early 1800s, was very similar to any crop harvest. Ice was a cash crop. Weather was certainly a factor in the ice harvest, because it determined the depth of the ice, incoming storms, temperatures that would hinder the harvest, and the timing of assembling a team of men. The goal of the ice harvest was to fill the ice house. In those years when the weather did not cooperate, the goal might not be reached.
The icebox was first patented in 1803. Its design was a wooden box lined with tin or zinc and insulated with sawdust. People were growing weary of salted, pickled, smoked, and dried meat, as well as rancid butter, wilted vegetables and the waste associated with throwing out leftovers. The temperance movement of 1830-1865 advocated consumption of healthier foods. Simultaneously, where natural ice was available, iceboxes were quickly purchased and a new era evolved in households across the nation. Thus, natural ice became an industry.
Spring-fed manmade lake furnished ice for local community
In my small southwest Iowa home town of College Springs, we were fortunate to have a 2-acre privately owned lake used for recreational purposes during the summer, with skating and ice harvesting in the winter. In the early 1900s, Crystal Lake was hollowed out of a valley between two tree-studded low hills using teams of horses pulling slip-scrapers. Two large springs fed the lake. The bottom was covered deeply with sand. Later, a wall was built around it. Over time a bathhouse was constructed, slides and diving boards installed, and the 30 surrounding acres made suitable for picnicking and camping.
In the early 1900s, Crystal Lake was the largest body of water within a 40-mile radius. It was estimated to hold more than 1.2 million gallons of water. On a beautiful summer Saturday afternoon and evening in the 1930s, it was not unusual to find 250 cars parked near the lake with a large crowd in the water. Ice skaters by the hundreds could be found enjoying the lake in the winter. Lake social activities and camping were closed temporarily in 1943 because of World War II.
Ice harvest at Crystal Lake began in the winter of 1918 and continued each winter that the weather cooperated until the late 1940s. In the fall of each year, the lake was drained and refilled with pure spring water. Ice taken from the lake was said to be as pure and good as artificial ice.
Everyone had cold feet
I clearly remember ice harvests held at the lake in late January and early February of the mid-1930s. When the ice thickness reached 8-12 inches, word went out and men assembled for the annual event.
The men gathered at daybreak on zero-degree mornings. A roaring fire was built on the shoreline for the men to enjoy some degree of warmth. The harvest crew of at least 12 men had on their warmest flannel mittens, black ear-flap caps, heavy coats, and often two pairs of pants. High-top four-buckle overshoes put on over leather-soled work shoes were most commonly worn, although some wore socks and slippers inside gum-boots. All brought ice cleats.
Before quitting for the day, everyone complained about cold feet. By the way, if the temperature rose above 32 degrees during the day, work was halted because the ice became too slippery.
Specialized tools and a time-proven system
Equipment necessary for the harvest included an ice plow or marker (one was patented in 1827), ice saws, ice hooks (sometimes called float-hooks or pike-poles), breaker bars, ice picks of various sizes, and ice tongs. This equipment was provided by the owner of the lake.
If the ice was covered by snow or sleet, it had to be shoveled off. Sometimes it took more time to remove the snow than it did to harvest the ice. A calm, well-broke horse shod with ice shoes (sharp cleats on their iron shoes) pulled the ice plow. Plowing the grid was a two-man operation. One man led the horse and another guided the plow in one direction. Then, horse and plow were drawn crossways with the resulting grooves forming an outline of a block of ice measuring 18 x 36 inches. As I remember, such a block would weigh well over 100 pounds.
Once the plowing was finished, men used ice saws and breaker bars to create a narrow channel along one side of the plowed area. The channel was then used to push floating ice toward the shore. An inclined conveyor was pre-positioned from the water’s edge up and into a huge icehouse located nearby. Occasionally someone would ignore safety logic, fall into the frigid water, and of course was taken to the fire to dry out.
All day long, men broke off cakes of ice with breaker bars and large ice picks. They pushed and pulled the blocks along the open channel with pike poles to the conveyor, where a horse and a system of rope and pullies moved the cakes of ice up and into the ice house. Upon arrival there, the ice cakes were aligned and insulated with sawdust. Each block of ice had to be separated on all sides by sawdust or the blocks would fuse together. The ice harvest lasted only a few days.
The thick walls of the ice house and the sawdust used in packing insulated the tons of ice blocks very well. In the summer, local residents came to the ice house when they needed ice. The cakes were freed from the insulation and then slid down a chute to a platform where they were washed and chipped to the size requested.
I don’t know how much a consumer paid for a 100-pound block of natural ice in the late 1930s, but I would guess 25 cents. I remember taking many trips to the ice house with my dad. Mother told him how much to buy and he would wrap it in a clean gunny sack for the trip home to our farm.
Electricity put an end to the ice harvest
Tons of ice were used during the summer in iceboxes in our small town and rural community. It was also used in ice cream freezers as well as to cool drinks at the supper table, something we all enjoyed after a hot day spent working in the fields.
The natural ice industry lasted for several decades, but by the early 1940s refrigeration was readily available. In 1921, 5,000 household refrigerators were manufactured in the U.S. By 1937, that number had risen to six million. Electricity had come to rural towns and farms. The ice harvest industry quickly faded away.
More than once I tried to play hooky from school so I could go down to the lake and watch the harvest. It was exciting to hear the men joshing each other and playing pranks to take their minds off the cold and boring work. But Mother, Dad and the school were consistently unbendable! FC
Retired school principal Don McKinley grew up on a farm in southwest Iowa. In writing this article, he was assisted by his daughter Connie Palmer. He has created a museum of 1930s vintage farm collectibles at his home in Quincy, Illinois. Contact him at 1336 Boy Scout Rd., Quincy, IL 62305; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his Facebook page at 1930’s Ag Museum.