The process of harvesting ice for use in keeping meat and other products from spoiling seems like another world but it once was a booming business in Lake Mills thanks to the Knickerbocker Ice Co.
According to an article written in the early 1990’s by Dr. Roland Liebenow, resident and local historian, ice harvesting in the northern half of the United States dates back to the colonial times. Blocks of ice were shipped commercially from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina beginning in 1799. It became a huge industry with brewers and meat packers becoming the largest consumers.
Liebenow said early residents of Lake Mills probably harvested ice from rivers and lakes, storing the blocks in buildings under a covering of hay or sawdust. Businesses like creameries and meat markets often participated in ice harvesting and stored the blocks in their own ice houses.
“Commercial harvesting of ice from Wisconsin’s rivers and lakes became both feasible and profitable as railroad lines expanded throughout the state and warm winters in Illinois forced Chicago interests to look further north for stable supplies,” Liebenow’s article said.
The Washington Ice Co., based in Chicago, started harvesting ice from as far away as Green Bay and it is said to have shipped 12,000 tons of ice from Watertown beginning in 1879. The following year, the editor of the Lake Mills Spike Newspaper encouraged ice harvesting from Rock Lake.
“In 1882 Mr. W.W. Ingram, a man identified with various business ventures in both Lake Mills and Chicago, hired a crew to cut ice from Rock Lake and sent several carloads to Chicago. Later, in 1889, he also convinced the Washington Ice Company to start harvesting ice from Rock Lake,” Liebenow wrote, adding Ingram assisted the company in acquiring land along the south edge of the lake next to the railroad tracks.
Progress continued as in 1890 the Washington Ice Company began to build an ice house on property that would in the future become part of Sandy Beach Resort. The four-story structure was 600 feet long and could house 50,000 tons of ice. In addition, it had a 44 foot high slide ramp attached to the lake side. The business also built a workers’ boarding hotel and a horse stable. Liebenow found that the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad built a side track to the ice house.
During the first season, the Washington Ice Co. had 75 men employed at the company and by the next year they were hiring 250 men seasonally. The company continued harvesting, storing and shipping ice yearly through 1898.
“It provided winter jobs. Farmers worked there during the winter for extra cash,” Liebenow said, adding they were one of the largest employers for seasonal work.
The process of harvesting was simple. The ice was collected by cutting a checkerboard pattern into the lake using horse-drawn saws. These blocks of ice were then pulled from the frigid water and stored in ice houses until the warm weather created a demand. The ice stayed frozen because of its enormous size and the more closely it was packed together, the longer it stayed cold.
The Fargo Dairy Supply Co. became involved in shipping ice to its customers in 1890. People who used Rock Lake ice saw it as pure compared to that of ice harvested from rivers. The C & NW Railroad even used Rock Lake ice in its dining cars for years.
Throughout the 1890’s five large Chicago businesses were harvesting and shipping ice from Wisconsin.
“For various economic and business reasons there was a consolidation of nearly all the Chicago ‘natural’ ice companies in 1898 which resulted in the formation of the Knickerbocker Ice Company. By 1900 the Knickerbocker Ice Company assumed control of the Washington Ice Company’s ice house and its lands on Rock Lake and initiated its own ice harvests,” Liebenow wrote.
By this time, the ice house had been expanded to 14 bins and could hold about 100,000 tons of ice. The roof was so large that baseball games were played on there by workers one Fourth of July.
The Knickerbocker Ice Company also had operations in other communities including Oconomowoc, Madison and West Bend. They also hit a rough patch because in 1909 a disastrous tornado struck, damaging three sections of the ice house. Workers repaired the building and the yearly ice harvest continued. Because of the tornado part of the ice load was sent to Madison and Baraboo for storage. Eventually only 10,000 tons of ice was being stored in the remaining eight bins in the Lake Mills ice house. Another downfall was the fact that freight rates from Lake Mills to Chicago cost 50 percent more than those from Madison.
Disaster struck a second time in 1914 when a tornado damaged the ice house further. The remaining ice was quickly shipped out of the ice house even though the structure was being fixed.
The Consumers Ice Company, producers of artificial ice in Chicago, started buying installations from the Knickerbocker Ice Company. Overtime it acquired the Knickerbocker Company. The Consumers Ice Company started cutting, sorting and shipping ice during January and February. The final ice harvest was held in February, 1919, with a main factor being the Chicago Health Board questioned the safety and purity of natural ice.
The process of ice harvesting nearly became obsolete because new technology made mechanical methods of freezing a possibility. The delivering of ice to homes continued through the 1920’s but by the 1930’s ice boxes were replaced by electric refrigerators in most homes.
In 1921, Steinel and Strauss bought the land that housed the ice house from the Consumers Ice Company. By 1922, the Sandy Beach Resort opened. The owners even stored ice in what remained of the ice house for about a year before the building was dismantled.
The history for this article was provided by Liebenow and www.legendarylakemills.com.