This Tuesday, Jan. 7, the Becker County Museum began once again its Ice Harvest on Lake Detroit. We began reenacting this historic practice in Detroit Lakes in 2018 to learn the process and create the first-ever Ice Palace on the beach.

With that, I would like to share a few passages (in italics) from the book, “Winter Harvest,” by Pippi Mayfield, available at the Becker County Museum and other locations. The book is a great read, discussing the practice of harvesting ice for use on trains to transport fresh goods, as well as ice for ice boxes around the country. I think the most unexpected detail is just how long ice harvests continued: harvesting ice was still happening until 1970!

“With temperatures hovering around 10 degrees below zero and a brisk wind coming off the frozen lake, nearly a hundred men work together, cutting fields, ribbons and cakes of ice weighing hundreds and hundreds of pounds to be loaded onto train cars and stacked in icehouses. It’s cold outside, but they don’t seem to notice as teams of horses plow snow off the ice, saw blades cut into the frozen lake and poles guide the ribbons of ice through a channel to the wooden tramway. The ice along the channel gets slippery, with water splashing onto the edges as the ice floats through it. Some men have experienced the unfortunate feeling of slipping into the frigid open waters, only to be whisked off to a warming house to dry off and keep from catching pneumonia.”

With temperatures hovering around 10 degrees below zero and a brisk wind coming off the frozen lake,
nearly a hundred men work together, cutting fields, ribbons and cakes of ice weighing hundreds and
hundreds of pounds to be loaded onto train cars and stacked in icehouses. (Photo Courtesy Becker County Museum)
With temperatures hovering around 10 degrees below zero and a brisk wind coming off the frozen lake, nearly a hundred men work together, cutting fields, ribbons and cakes of ice weighing hundreds and hundreds of pounds to be loaded onto train cars and stacked in icehouses. (Photo Courtesy Becker County Museum)

Imagine for a moment doing this in these conditions without the benefit of modern outerwear! We are so fortunate in modern times to have materials to make better gloves, snow pants, boots, hats, etc.

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“It was something that kept you in groceries and whatnot. That was always good,” James Matter said. “Instead of having to sell some grain to pay for the groceries, you could work out on the ice. We had to eat.” Matter, who farmed during the summer, worked for Addison-Miller Ice Company in 1957 and 1959-60. Ice harvesting was one of the largest industries in Becker County, with harvesting done mainly on Detroit Lake, though some surrounding lakes were also used for harvest. In Detroit Lakes, the industry began in 1887, boomed through the 1930s and started to taper off when electric refrigerators were introduced in the 1940s. It came to a close in 1970, with the last harvest being recorded for posterity. By then, the men knew it was something of the past.”

Ice harvesters cut ice on Detroit Lake in this undated photo from the Becker County Museum. Ice harvesting was once one of the largest industries in Becker County, with harvesting done mainly on Detroit Lake. (Photo Courtesy Becker County Museum)
Ice harvesters cut ice on Detroit Lake in this undated photo from the Becker County Museum. Ice harvesting was once one of the largest industries in Becker County, with harvesting done mainly on Detroit Lake. (Photo Courtesy Becker County Museum)

Today a person might go greet at a local store or work the till at a gas station for winter filler work, or maybe sell homemade items. These folks went out and cut huge ice blocks out of the lake. The entire process is quite fascinating, with special tools and techniques to complete the job.

If you head down to the Pavilion and look out over the lake, you will see some folks doing just that. But they are not doing it to be able to eat, they are volunteers doing it as part of a community event. I’ve been involved with the Ice Harvest event since it began in 2017, and I have learned a plethora of interesting things. If you let the ice cake stop while sliding it along, there is a good chance it will stick fast and you will have to get help to remove it. Also, ice workers would tie a rope to their tools so they could retrieve them if the tools fell into the lake.

“The tramway was powered by a steam engine, and men with pike poles and lake bars steered the strips, or ribbons, of ice near the tramway. As the strips hit the tramway, men with needle bars would break off the 22-by-32-inch ice cakes that were from 16 to 19 inches thick. The 400-pound ice cakes traveled along the tramway to the chutes, where they were loaded into the railroad cars. It took five men about 20 minutes to load a railcar. One man would guide the cakes off the tram and into the chute. Two swing men were at the railcar door to direct the cakes to the sides of the car where a packer would be waiting to guide the cake into place. Cakes that weren’t loaded onto the railcars traveled along the tram to the ice-house, located where Holiday Inn is today, for storage.”

Grab the book to find out more about ice harvesting and how it was an instrumental part of Becker County’s history and success in business as the second largest industry here, as well as a way to earn a living for the hardier folks! Stop down to the museum during Polar Fest to see more info on display.