Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 25, 2023

How cool is that?

It seemed fitting that it was the July 12 issue of the Saturday Evening Post that had "The Surprisingly Cool History of Ice" article. When but in the very heart of summer would an encounter with ice seem more inviting?

But while we Americans have long enjoyed an iced drink in the heat of summer, Europeans have only recently begun embracing the idea. Some Air BnBs offer ice cube trays, although they're usually quite small with small cubes as well. Some stores offer thin plastic bags with separate "compartments" you fill with water and then freeze. To use the ice, you then peel the plastic away.

At home, I use plastic ice cube trays, but when I was young, we had aluminum ones with handles that were pulled to loosen the cubes. While those seemed "uptown" at the time, our daughters and spouses have refrigerators with ice makers that provide cold water, ice cubes, or crushed ice, depending on what they desire.

The Post's article suggests that this all began with Frederic Tudor, who "saw dollar signs in frozen ponds." The business had a rocky start, but Tudor was persistent. While living in a South Carolina boarding house in 1819, he brought a cooler of chilled beverages to the dinner table. His fellow boarders were skeptical at first, but eventually fell in love with his iced drinks. He traveled around the country convincing barkeeps to offer chilled drinks, teaching restaurant owners how to make ice cream, and showing doctors how ice could cool feverish patients.

In 1826, he hired Nathaniel Wyeth as his foreman. Wyeth invented a faster harvesting method using a horse-drawn plow to cut the river ice into large blocks. These were then floated downstream, where a conveyor belt lifted the blocks from the water and carried them to an ice house, where they were stacked 80 feet high. In the 1830s, Tudor shipped nearly 12,000 tons of ice halfway around the world from his base in Boston. By 1847, nearly 52,000 tons of ice traveled by ship or train to cities across the U.S.

Harvesting winter ice to provide refrigeration during the warm summer months soon caught on across the country. By the start of the 20th century, when the January ice in the mill pond in Manawa, Wisconsin reached a thickness of 12-15 inches, men would drill holes down to the water. Using saws with widely-spaced teeth, they cut the ice into blocks a couple of feet wide. The blocks were then stored in a pit about 50 feet from the pond's edge. Covered with several inches of sawdust for insulation, the blocks would remain mostly frozen well into the following October. Many ice storage locations were situated close to or even part of a saw mill where sawdust was a byproduct of the main business.

In the mid-1920s, husband Art's father Tom was one of the delivery men in Manawa. Customers left a back door open so he could walk in whenever he arrived.

"Sometimes, you'd open the door and see some really interesting things," Tom told Art.

The Lutz Ice Company in Art's hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin was started in 1885. In the early days, ice was cut from nearby Lake Winnebago and the Fox River. Later, an ice house was located on the corner of Superior and North streets where the company had its own well. Water was frozen by use of ammonia refrigeration units.

It was still in operation in the early 1950s when Art was a boy. One of the company's horse-drawn wagons delivered ice on his street.

It was a very plodding type thing. The wagon had a deck, sides and front made of wood. The back was open. The deck was always wet from melting ice which was covered with a canvas tarp. When the ice man got to a house and received an order, he threw the tarp back and used a chipper to break off a chunk. Then he used tongs to grip the smaller piece and threw it over his shoulder, which had some padding to protect him from the cold. Most homes got one "tong" of ice. There was obviously some skill involved because the ice always seemed to come out square. We had an electric refrigerator, so we didn't get ice, but there were three or four homes along our block that did. Kids would follow the wagon and suck on the pieces that came off from the chipping.

As people grew more accustomed to fresh meats, milk, and fruit, the ice industry became one of the most powerful in the nation. Insulated railroad cars cooled by ice crossed the nation with foods that otherwise would have perished in the summer heat.

But with the development of mechanical refrigerators powered by electricity initially brought to homes for lighting, the ice industry’s days were numbered.

While cutting ice from frozen rivers and ponds is largely a thing of the past, people in Eagle River, Wisconsin still do it once a year. Volunteers put in more than 700 hours cutting some 2,500-3,000 12-inch-thick blocks from a local lake, hauling them to the downtown area, and stacking them into place on the weekend nearest to the New Year. What results is a palace made of ice.

The tradition began in the 1930s, with Charles Hanke, owner of the C.H. Hanke Ice Co., providing the ice. Volunteers still use some of the original equipment Hanke used, including an ice saw and conveyor system.

So I guess the Post's article was correct. Despite it being such a common commodity, any way you cut it, the story of ice is pretty cool.

Top-row (l-r): Art's cousin Kris holding plastic-encapsulated ice-cube maker popular in Europe; ice cube tray we had when I was young; Frederic Tudor; horse-drawn saw to score river or lake ice; scored blocks then cut with a hand saw. Middle-row: cutting ice on Manawa Mill Pond circa 1925 (left) and a Lutz ice truck fully loaded circa 1930. Bottom-row (l-r): where Lutz cut ice from the river is now the Appleton Yacht Club marina; Eagle River ice palace in the day and night in winter of 2021-2022. (images from outside sources: tray-Amazon;Tudor and scoring-Wikipedia; saw-University of Houston; mill pond-Manawa centennial book; truck-memorial at former Lutz ice-house location; ice palace-John Ashton and Dan Dumas)

Comments? [email protected].
Other columns from this year may be found at: Current year Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home