America’s Ice Box: How the frozen lakes and rivers of the North transformed the nation’s brewing industry

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Harvested ice gets loaded into rail cars in Worthington, Minnesota // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Today, “ice harvest” means grabbing a few cubes from the tray in the freezer. But in the 19th century, before modern refrigeration, ice harvesting from frozen lakes and rivers was a major Midwestern industry that required hard labor and careful planning—all to preserve food and lager beer across the country.

When immigrants reached the Upper Midwest in the 1840s, they found Minnesota and Wisconsin to be a wonderland of clean lakes and rivers—an ideal landscape for harvesting ice come winter. The Mississippi River, and eventually the railroads, provided convenient transportation routes to ship ice south and soon a vibrant industry was born. In the Midwest and beyond, ice proved a crucial ingredient for success for the nation’s meat packers, creameries, and breweries.

While ice was mostly sourced from lakes and rivers, some enterprising brewers and “ice farmers” created their own ice fields from which to harvest. One such entrepreneur was A. Gettelman Brewing Company in Milwaukee. In 1882, employees built a dam on a nearby river and, just before a freeze, would close the gates to flood the area, making a custom ice field for their use.

Ice was ready for harvesting when it was at least 18 inches thick—which is to say, thick enough both to support the weight of the men, horses, and equipment needed to gather it and to make ice blocks thick enough for efficient use. Before being cut, ice was scraped clean of snow by horse-drawn scrapers and men with shovels. Once cleared, teams of horses pulled saws across the ice to cut blocks about two feet–by–two feet. The task was finished by men with handsaws and the blocks were loaded onto conveyors or sleds, taken to icehouses, and arranged by men wielding pike poles and ice tongs.

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Ice harvesting on Whitefish Lake, Crow Wing County, Minnesota // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Most ice harvesters were younger, as the work was back-breaking and done in harsh weather conditions. Though the work wasn’t for the faint of heart, it did provide an opportunity for thousands of recent immigrants whose usual jobs—on the docks or in sewers, for example—were rendered impossible by winter. Workers who guided the ice blocks earned about one dollar per 10- to- 12-hour workday; the more skilled packers could earn up to $1.75 per day. An article in The Milwaukee Sentinel in 1895 summed up the work this way: “The hours are long and the work disagreeable, and no one who can get anything else to do cares to engage in the ice harvest.”

It wasn’t just the hours and weather that made ice harvesting unappealing, however. The work was often hazardous. Men fell into holes in the ice or cut themselves with the sharp tools. Once, a worker harvesting ice for the Hastings Brewing Co. dropped a company hand saw into the river. While the man was not fired, owner Gustav Kuenzel ordered him to dive into the frigid waters to retrieve it, which he reluctantly did. In 1878, an entire team hauling ice for an Oshkosh brewery fell into Lake Winnebago. All the men and horses were ultimately rescued, but the ice wagon was badly damaged.

Next page: The harvest must go on

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