Artificially produced ice and mechanized chilling would eventually replace the “frozen water trade.” In the late 1800s, making artificial ice became more efficient, drastically decreasing the amount of natural ice needed. Mechanical refrigeration and an increase in demand made ice harvesting, or the “frozen water trade,” an impractical and less cost-effective option to chill foods in households, trains and businesses.

Harvesting Huge Ice Blocks

The ice harvest typically began in January, when at least a foot of ice would grace the surface of lakes, ponds or rivers. First, the snow was scooped from the surface and a giant cut was made in the ice using a horse-drawn plow or tractor hooked up to a circular saw.

Then, ice harvesters used 6-foot long hand saws to cut smaller, rectangular blocks of ice — usually about 22 inches by 22 inches. Those 200-300-pound blocks were floated through the newly open water using sharp-hooked tongs or long pitchforks/ice hooks and pushed up a ramp onto a horse-drawn wagon or sled.

The blocks were taken to an ice house. Each community had a wooden or concrete storage building based on the amount of ice a community needed. The blocks were stacked tightly and a layer of sawdust added to keep them from sticking together. Up to 12 inches of sawdust was used as insulation on the floor and interior walls of the ice house, according to the 1928 Farmer's Bulletin.

Surprisingly, ice stored in ice houses in this manner stays cool for up to three times longer than commercially made ice. Why? Naturally occurring ice has fewer impurities than ice made using tap water, it is also created and harvested in colder temperatures (outside), and the size and shape of the ice blocks — all contribute to it taking a longer time to melt. The cost of storing ice was estimated at roughly $3 a ton in the 1920s, or about $50 today.

A team of horses stands in front of the recently harvested pond.

A team of horses stand in front of the recently harvested pond.

Is Ice Harvesting Still a Thing?

Plain community members are not the only ones still harvesting ice.

Junction City, Wisconsin, Three Rivers, Michigan, and other cities across Maine and North America host annual ice harvests. Three Rivers hosts an Ice Harvesting Day so youth can learn the trade’s history and methods. In Junction City, the ice is cut and stored for use at summer firemen's picnics and festivals. In other cities, it is used for ice sculpture competitions. In Maine, the Thompson Ice House Harvesting Museum hosts an annual ice harvest every February.

It can be hard to imagine living without such conveniences as having appliances that spit out ice chunks at the push of a button. So many communities have continued a way of life that does not allow for modern “conveniences” — without complaint or hesitation. The ice harvest is another example of Plain community farmers coming together to support their communities.

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Article written by Hannah Wente and Jennifer McBride. Wente writes about food, health and lifestyle topics from her home base in Madison, Wisconsin. McBride, also a Wisconsin resident, is Rootstock’s editor. She is grateful for the communities that welcome her in to share their stories. Email McBride at Rootstock@organicvalley.com.

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