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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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:
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.
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."
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."