Cold, clear cubes: A look back at local ice harvesting
About 50-60 years ago, ice harvesting was the second largest industry in Becker County. Second only to timber and logging, ice harvesting has now become a novelty with many stories now just a memory.
Last week's Brown Bag Lunch series at the Becker County Historical Society featured ice harvesting, and the historical society is also sponsoring an ice cutting demonstration on Saturday as the ice is cut for the Polar Fest Plunge.
As a 17-year-old, Larry Howard worked on stacking ice blocks in the train cars.
"I grabbed the first cake and went right straight out the other side of the boxcar and landed on the track, and they were all laughing at me and said that's how you don't do it," he wrote of his memories of the ice harvest that are on file at the Becker County Historical Society.
He worked for Fargo-Detroit Ice Works, as did many other men in the area.
"(In) those days," he said, "most everybody that could get on worked there because there wasn't much else to do around there in the winter."
Ike Fischer, who shared his memories during the Brown Bag Luncheon, worked in Frazee on the harvest there.
He explained how horses were used in Frazee to plow snow off the ice, and were used in the cutting process as well. They had special spikes on their shoes to keep from falling.
"If they slip on the ice and fall, you have got a problem," he said of the horses.
Though ice harvesting started prior to 1902, that was the first year a permit was granted to harvest the ice. The winter of 1970-71 was the last harvest.
In 1951, there were 20-25 people employed during the summer at the Fargo-Detroit Company, and about 55-65 more were hired during the harvest. That same year, the payroll for all of the men working the harvest was $50,000.
"It was very hard work for little pay," Amy Degerstrom, museum executive director, said.
A large portion of the ice harvested in Detroit Lakes went to the Northern Pacific Railroad to keep their goods refrigerated. It was also distributed by train throughout the United States.
In an article by Roger Engstrom on file at the Becker County Museum, he said that during the peak years of ice harvesting, 4,000 boxcars were used for shipping ice to the western states.
When the ice harvesting ended, Northern Pacific now had ice-making equipment in the western states, and the trains were equipped with electric refrigerators.
While harvesting ice, the men cut a channel out into the lake so that the blocks would be cleaner, with less earth and debris in them.
According to Engstrom's story, "a circular saw, powered by a Model A engine with about 25 horsepower, cut the ice half way through. The ice was 'scored' into 'cakes' measuring 22-by-32 inches. 'Ice sawdust' was packed into the cut to keep water from getting into the cut and freezing. When completed, a 'float' was cut, which was 10 cakes wide and 40 cakes long.
"When the float arrived at the tramway, the 'pond saw' completed the cut all the way down to the water, making a strip two cakes wide and 40 cakes long."
From there, men with pike poles would guide the strips into place near the tramway. The imperfect cakes went to the cripple pile, which took until July at times to melt.
"If too many were on the cripple pile, you didn't make any money," Fischer said. "You had to be sure the ice was a uniform thickness. You wanted a uniform cake."
The perfect cakes weighing 400 pounds or more continued on the tram and were loaded onto the railroad cars.
"As the cakes came up the tramway, they passed under the planer that cut them all the same thickness and put groves in the cakes. The groves in the cakes kept the cakes from freezing together," Engstrom wrote.
One of the men who worked on the railroad cars was Dick Duffney. He worked, stacking the ice blocks, which were stacked three tiers and by the third stack, he said, they were easy to get in place.
"I always found new muscles every day," he said. "It was quite an experience. It was hard work."
Ice cakes that weren't loaded onto the trains were stored in the icehouses, which is the site of Holiday Inn today.
One of the major differences between the Detroit Lakes ice harvest and the harvest in Frazee where Fischer worked was that in Frazee, they used horses to do the work of the engines.
Whoever was doing the cutting, learned it well. "And the horses learned well, too," Fischer added.
They tried to get away from using horses for the process because it "wasn't a good idea." This was ice that would be used for drinks and iceboxes, and this was ice that horses were walking on and going to the bathroom on.
The ice harvests usually started between Christmas and New Years, and the men would work as quickly as possible to get it done because of weather.
Ice that was stored in the warehouse, where the Holiday Inn now stands, was covered with sawdust, which would "keep the ice all summer -- in theory," he said.
One year, Fischer said he worked to remove all the sawdust, hauling it away. It took days and he got paid $15, which he said now, looking back, he shouldn't have done because it wasn't worth the pay.
Of ice harvesting in general, "it was kind of fun," he said.
Dependant on the weather, they could have a second cutting later in the winter.
In 1937, they didn't start the harvest until February because of the warm temps, Degerstrom said.
The Becker County Historical Society and Museum has many stories, pictures and information on file on the county's ice harvest.
There will also be an ice cutting demonstration on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. near The Pavilion. Gary Thompson of Tri-State Diving will be cutting the hole for the Polar Fest Plunge, and he will be on hand with tools and information on how the ice is cut nowadays.
Photos courtesy of Becker County Historical Society.