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Back in the day, Detroit Lake was just one big ice machine

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Detroit Lakes,Minnesota 56501
Detroit Lakes Online
Back in the day, Detroit Lake was just one big ice machine
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Detroit Lake was once known for its pure ice.

For years, ice was harvested by the ton to supply ice to cold storage businesses, homes and the railroad. Once automatic icemakers came around, though, ice harvesting was no longer needed and therefore ended one of the largest companies in Detroit Lakes at the time.


Started in 1888, John West began harvesting the ice of Detroit Lake with just a few men's help. In 1903, the business was incorporated as Fargo-Detroit Ice Company.

"In 1903, the Fargo-Detroit Ice Company was organized by the purchase of one of the Fargo companies and the Ellison Bros. Company of this city," the Record read on April 24, 1925.

When it became incorporated in 1903, the company produced enough ice to fill 25 railroad cars.

By 1925, it was producing enough to fill 4,500 cars.

Back then, "horse-drawn vehicles" delivered the ice. Horses were also used in the harvesting process, and workers later said they worked better than machines because they could get closer to the edge of the ice.

Ice harvesting was at its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. It then died down and boomed again during the war when refrigeration equipment was unobtainable.

When harvesting, the cutting would begin in late December and continue for two months. Ideal conditions were temperatures between zero and 10 degrees above.

The process of cutting ice was just as is sounds, cutting.

Power saws would run down the field, cutting the width and then the length. With channels produced, the large blocks of ice could float to the tramway chain.

On shore, the blocks would be divided into strips, or ribbons, by large chisels or bars, then made into cakes and loaded onto railroad cars, or into the storage building from the tramway.

The ice field was about half a mile by one-fifth of a mile in size. Weeds were cut during the summer to keep the area clean for winter ice.

"Then when snow falls, plows move in on the ice and keep it scraped off to promote faster growing," a Jan. 17, 1962, article reported.

When the ice was 16-19 inches thick, it was ready for harvest and the cakes --squares of ice -- were 22-by-32 inches.

The bar line (every 10 cakes) and saw line (every 40 cakes) were corked, or packed with ice shavings from sawing. Corking the cakes kept lines open to prevent water from getting in and freezing saw lines.

The tramway was 450 feet long and powered by a 50 horsepower electric motor.

A metal brush scraped the cakes clean because the ice had to be uniform before going into the boxcars.

Any blocks, or cakes, that came out imperfect were piled elsewhere, and considered "crippled."

On April 24, 1925, the newspaper reported that J.K. West retired from Fargo-Detroit Ice Company, "Detroit's leading industry for the past quarter of a century." Succeeding him was J.L. Loveder of Fargo.

West came to Detroit Lakes from New York City. He promoted the area so much he was known as "Father of the Tourism Industry" in Detroit Lakes.

He also built the steamboat line from Detroit Lakes to Shoreham, past Bucks Mills to Pelican Lake in Otter Tail.

In August 1944, a storm went through Detroit Lakes and destroyed -- $20,000 estimated damage -- the main icehouse of Fargo-Detroit Ice. Co. on the shore of Big Detroit Lake.

Then on March 21, 1946, the people living in Detroit Lakes held the controlling interest of the company.

Fire destroyed a 30-by-90 foot warehouse owned by Fargo-Detroit, causing $7,500 in damage. It was located on State Street.

In 1945, Fargo-Detroit was the largest industry in Detroit Lakes. It had a payroll of $38,000 and employed 40-60 men in the winter and 15-25 during the remaining time. The company used six trucks to haul product, and bottled 70,000 cases of pop

In 1958, Fargo-Detroit Ice Co. bought out Addison-Miller Co. of St. Paul. Just after World War II, 200,000 tons of ice was harvested by Fargo-Detroit and Addison-Miller Co. The harvest of 1958 was noted as the last real harvest.

Besides ice, Fargo-Detroit was known for bottling and distributing bottled water -- known as Pokegama Springs -- and soda including Pepsi-Cola, Mission Orange, O-So Grape, Hires Root Beer and Squirt.

The company distributed beverages to Becker, Mahnomen, Clay, Otter Tail and Grant counties in Minnesota and six counties in North Dakota.

Ice, though, was shipped to Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Illinois, South Dakota and Washington. Some even made its way to Texas and Florida.

Detroit Lake ice was used for the dining car service over the entire Northern Pacific Railway.

Oct. 3, 1960, Wayne Lubenow wrote an article for the newspaper stating the ice harvest would be "severely curtailed."

In the story, Frank Hennesy, secretary of Fargo-Detroit Ice Co., said, "The only ice-cutting we will do this year is for the Northern Pacific Railroad. We are discontinuing all ice storage and sales. All we will do is ship directly to Northern Pacific."

With that said, the company harvested three weeks and gathered 35,000 tons of ice.

The reason behind the curtailed business was that ice-making machines were now making the harvest unprofitable.

Another reason for the curtailed production was Armous and Co. of West Fargo had purchased 75 percent of the ice from Fargo-Detroit, and Armous closed in July 1959.

Regardless of the decline in ice harvesting, Fargo-Detroit still continued to do business.

"Ice is just a minute part of out business," Hennesy stated.

The company continued with bottled water and Pepsi-Cola.

The company also furnished ice to the meat packing industry year-round. Ice was produced for railroad cars to be iced to ship poultry, eggs and dairy products, and for transcontinental shipment of fresh fruit and vegetables.

In a Feb. 6, 1963, article on Ted Gunderson, who had worked for the company for 60 years, he said he had seen many things in his time with the company.

He witnessed the McCabe brothers crash their car through the think layer of ice field on the way to their fish house. One of the brothers died before he could be rescued. He also saw two men working for the company die and several teams of horses fall in and drown.

An editorial printed July 27, 1990, announced Fargo-Detroit Beverages would harvest ice no more.

Written by Ken Prentice, it stated, "When the ice on Big Detroit goes unharvested this coming winter, many local residents will regret the passing of an era, one of the penalties we pay for continued improvements and a better way of life."

(This is the first in an occasional series on historic Detroit Lakes. Information is courtesy of the Becker County Historical Society.)