POLAR FEST SPECIAL COVERAGE: A hundred years ago, Detroit Lakes was a major ice-producing hub

A close look at the history of Detroit Lakes' ice harvests. This story is from the Tribune newspaper's 2022 ICE BREAKER, a special supplement to the Sunday, Feb. 6 Tribune that's all about this year's Polar Fest.

An ice harvester collects ice blocks from Detroit Lake with a self-propelled ice cutter in an undated black-and-white historical photo.
This self-propelled ice cutter was one of many creative ways that local ice harvesters would speed up the harvesting process. (Photo Courtesy of Becker County Museum)

One of the cool things about the ice palace, ice maze and ice “news desk” — and everything else that Polar Fest is doing with 600-pound ice blocks this year — is that the ice came right from Detroit Lake, near the city's historical Pavilion.

Sure, the modern harvest involves Bobcat loaders and big power saws, but it also involves the use of more traditional methods and tools, like using ice pikes to float the big cakes of ice to a conveyor belt, and then shaving them into a standard size.

Cutting Ice.jpg
Men cut ice on Detroit Lake during an ice harvest of the past.
(Photo Courtesy of Becker County Museum)

That activity strikes a chord with old-timers in Detroit Lakes because the winter “ice harvest” was an economic staple from the turn of the last century to about 1960.

Back then, ice harvesting was the second largest industry in Becker County, second only to timber and logging, according to information from the Tribune archives and the Becker County Historical Society.

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, which are on file at the Historical Society.

Howard worked for Fargo-Detroit Ice Works, as did many other men in the area.

"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."

sawing ice.jpg
In this January 12, 1962 photo from the Becker County Museum, an unidentified man uses a saw to partially cut through a field of lake ice, but doesn't cut all the way down to the water's surface.
(Photo Courtesy of Becker County Museum)

Starting in 1888, Detroit Lakes notable John West began harvesting ice on Detroit Lake with just a few men's help. Fifteen years later, the business was incorporated as Fargo-Detroit Ice Company.

In 1903, the company produced enough ice to fill 25 railroad cars. By 1925, it was producing enough to fill 4,500 cars.

"It was quite an experience. It was hard work."
Dick Duffney, who used to stack ice blocks during the old ice harvests

In 1945, Fargo-Detroit was the biggest company in Detroit Lakes. It had a payroll of $38,000 and employed 40 to 60 men in the winter and 15 to 25 during other seasons.

By 1951, the payroll for all of the men working the harvest was $50,000.

Scuba_Icing Tools.JPG
A number of icing tools from the historic ice harvest were found (with the help of a local scuba diver and an underwater metal detector) in Detroit Lake in 1992. They now hang on a wall at Tri-State Diving in Detroit Lakes.
(Tribune File Photo)

That works out to about $600 apiece — about $6,500 in today’s dollars — for a ton of work. It was very hard work for little pay, and it could be dangerous for both men and horses, especially in the early days.


One of the men who worked on the railroad cars was Dick Duffney. He stacked ice blocks three tiers high, 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."

In this Jan. 17, 1962 photo, Fargo-Detroit Ice Works employees are seen guiding floats of ice cakes onto a tramway, which was used to carry the ice from the lake into boxcars for shipping, or into storage icehouses.
(Photo Courtesy of Becker County Museum)

Ted Gunderson, who worked for the ice company for 60 years, said in a 1963 newspaper article that working on the lake was dangerous.

He witnessed the McCabe brothers crash their car through a thin layer of ice on the harvesting site, 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.

But there wasn’t much else to do for money in Detroit Lakes in the wintertime back then, and in later years, at least, some men enjoyed the work.

"It was kind of fun," said Ike Fischer of Frazee, who worked on the ice harvest in Frazee, which made more use of horses.

Because he was one of the few ice harvest workers with a camera, Leonard Thielen took lots of pictures. Here, you can see some of the workers on the ice block discard pile, sans shirts in a display of winter hardiness.
(Photo Courtesy of Becker County Museum)

Before electrification and the widespread use of electric refrigerators and freezers, “ice boxes” were the name of the game in the average kitchen, and they kept food cool with a block of ice cut from places like Detroit Lake.


A big chunk of the ice harvested in Detroit Lakes went to the Northern Pacific Railroad to keep their goods refrigerated. It was also shipped by train throughout the country.

Here’s the process that was used to harvest ice, according to an article by local historian Roger Engstrom on file at the Becker County Museum:

This photo shows the Jan. 17, 1942 ice harvest on Detroit Lake. The men with the short "pickeroos" (ice picks) are switchmen preparing to load the ice blocks onto Northern Pacific Railroad cars.
(Photo Courtesy of Becker County Museum)

First, 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 halfway 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. Imperfect cakes went into a discard pile, which took until July at times to melt.

At the beginning of the ice harvesting process, large circular saws powered by Model A and Model T engines would score the ice fields into 22x32-inch cakes, weighing about 400 pounds each. The workers would then cut "floats" that were 10 cakes wide and 40 cakes long.
(Photo Courtesy of Becker County Museum)

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 a planer that cut them all the same thickness and put grooves in the cakes. The grooves in the cakes kept the cakes from freezing together," Engstrom wrote.


Ice cakes that weren't loaded onto the trains were stored in the icehouses, located where the Holiday Inn is today.

"It was kind of fun."
Ike Fischer, who worked on the old Frazee ice harvests

The ice harvest usually started between Christmas and New Year’s, and lasted about two months. Ice that was stored in the warehouse, where the Holiday Inn now stands, was covered with sawdust, which would keep the ice from melting all summer, at least in theory, Engstrom said.

A newspaper editorial by Ken Prentice, published July 27, 1990, announced Fargo-Detroit Beverages would harvest ice no more.

"When the ice on Big Detroit goes unharvested this coming winter, many local residents will regret the passing of an era,” he wrote. “One of the penalties we pay for continued improvements and a better way of life."

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