Iowa Great Lakes History – The Big Chill

Ice harvesters braved winter’s cruelest elements

By Greg Drees

In this technologically dominant world, it is difficult to imagine the labor that was once employed to achieve some of the things that we absolutely take for granted today. Take, for instance, back in the days of pre-refrigeration (yes, Gen Xers and Millennials, there were those days), when an icebox was literally a large tin box in which was placed a block of ice to keep food perishables.

During that era – circa late 1800s to around 1950 – there were several companies that worked during the winter in Smith’s Bay on West Lake Okoboji and at the lower end of East Lake Okoboji harvesting the ice for sale. Such was the trade of men with iron wills and gnarled hands, stalwart individuals who carved the product from the Iowa Great Lakes’ icecap.

These weather-worn laborers would go far enough off shore to get good, clear ice and then plow a large surface free of snow, marking off the area in squares with a two-bladed, horse-drawn sled. These great blocks of ice, most twenty-two by forty-four inches with almost a uniform thickness of twenty-four inches and weighing as much as 700 pounds, were moved along a conveyor belt powered by a steam engine. The ice was perfect and crystal clear.

A channel was cut about three feet wide at the corner nearest the shore. Spud bars were used to loosen the ice slabs and float them to the head channel. A double hook with a handle – often called a ‘Jack’– was used to pull ice up the chute. The block ice was either loaded into waiting trucks that warehoused the blocks for local sale and delivery or loaded into train box cars – with an average of 30 tons to the car and as many as 700 cars per day – to be shipped commercially across the country.

Ice work was a hazardous occupation. Men wore ‘creepers’– or strips of metal with sharp spikes in rows – over their overshoes. Accidental plunges into the arctic-cold water were frequent, and pneumonia took its share of lives. Common wages were ten cents per hour for many years, with 10 to 12-hour shifts common. One crew worked the midnight – or overnight shift – to keep the channels open and ice-free to save time in the morning when the harvest continued.

Wool was the common clothing insulator at the time. Long johns, shirts, sweaters, socks, mittens, ear-flapped caps and boot liners – all made of wool – constituted the wardrobes of the ice harvesters. Frostbite was a common malady.

One of the local icehouse operations was owned by Bob Crosby, who stored block ice mostly below ground level at a site on the east side of Milford. Drivers for Crosby would load up with ice blocks and cruise the streets of Milford looking for ‘ice cards’ in the windows of customers. The cards were visible from the street with the amount of ice desired – 30, 40 pounds, etc. – scripted on the cards. Drivers would secure a block of ice with large ‘tongs’ and score it enough to break it into desired weights and sizes. The ice was carried into the house and placed in an icebox.

The ice harvesting business was lucrative for the several companies that were well enough equipped to handle the adverse conditions. The Okoboji Ice Company and the M.T. ‘Bud’ McKinney operation reported harvests as great as 42,000,000 pounds that were both sold and delivered locally or sold as ‘contract ice’ to the railroads and shipped nationwide. The annual ice industry was a vital part of the Dickinson County economy back then and was often the only means of employment during the cold winters. Only when modern refrigeration spread through the Midwest in the mid 20th century did the unique enterprise grow economically unfeasible.

In 1948 the Allen Ice Truck was harvesting ice in Smith’s Bay. The crew should not have been out there, as ice conditions were deteriorating. The truck broke through the ice and sunk to the bottom of the bay, but sparing the life of driver Ralph Gregerson. A famous shot by underwater photographer Lloyd Cunningham shows the 1935 Ford pickup as scuba divers see it, intact but covered in moss and now zebra mussels.

So the next time you use the automatic ice dispenser on your state-of-the-art refrigerator or fill your cooler with a bag of ice from the quick-shop, remember back to a time when men put themselves in harms way to harvest the diamonds from the lakes.