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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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ICE HARVESTING. As a rule, ice-cutting in the United States took place in January through the early part of March. When ice was thick enough for operations to begin it was scraped, if covered with snow, and, if rough and wavy on the surface, it was sometimes planed.

When the snow had been cleared, the field was " prospected" for the best point to begin cutting. Holes were bored and a measuring rod was inserted to test the thickness. The rod was marked in inches and the lower end was turned off at a right angle to hook on to the bottom of the ice. It paid to cut the thickest ice even if a smaller quantity of it was gathered. The preference was given to that part of the field above the ice-house, if on a river, in order to gain the help of the stream in floating the detached ice down to the house. The further away from the house the cutting took place the more the time, labor, and money was required to harvest the crop, especially as the channels for floating the cakes to the house were always likely to freeze up over night. Late in the season, ice harvesting continued into the night with light given by torches and bonfires. (1)

Horses drawing ice saws cut a groove 11 inches deep in the ice. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi Museum and Aquarium.
Large sections of ice were cut by hand.Photo courtesy: National Mississippi Museum and Aquarium
Panels of ice called "floats" were separated from the remaining mass.Photo courtesy: National Mississippi Museum and Aquarium
These "floats" were guided down a channel cut in the ice to a mechanical chute extending from the company's large ice house to the river.Photo courtesy: National Mississippi Museum and Aquarium

All along the channel were men with pike poles to keep the "floats" moving towards the chute. At the river end of the chute, which was 150 feet long, men used steel bars called "spuds" to break the "floats" into individual cakes each 22 by 28 inches. A water wheel at the end of the chute caught each cake and sent it up the chute to the ice house. Naturally cold work, the harvest continued unless the temperature fell to well below zero. (2) In February 1914, for example, the harvest had to be halted for a blizzard and cold weather. The channel from which ice was harvested frozen each night and it took from three to five hours to reopen it. As many as three hundred men were involved. (3)

The ice house was divided into five compartments. Men with pike poles were stationed at each compartment opening to divert the ice cakes from the conveyor into the compartments. Inside each compartment were twelve men who moved the cakes into orderly rows with all space used. All ice cakes which appeared defective were pushed off the conveyor to the ground. The ice was packed in sawdust which insulted it and helped prevent melting. (4) Delivery was made to homes and businesses displaying an "ice today" card in the window. In August 1874, 300 tons of ice was sold to merchants in St. Louis. (5)

Ice house operation sometimes led to transportation problems. F. Ackerman and Louis Frick, ice dealers, had a complaint filed against them in July 1876 for placing ice slides from their ice house into Pine Street, Thirteenth Street, and the alley between Pine and Maple STREETS. The complaint alleged that these slides obstructed traffic and interfered with public transportation. (6)

In 1876 CUSHING, FISCHER & COMPANY and ELLISON & CO. had the following notice published in the Dubuque Herald.

         To All Ice Consumers in Dubuque:
         We, the undersigned, ice dealers of Dubuque believing that
         everyone should receive a fair price for their goods, and
         knowing that the majority of ice consumer the last two or
         three years has been sold at less than the cost of storing
         and handling, we have adopted the following prices:
            15 pounds every other day . . . . . 35 cents/week
            15 pounds every day . . . . . . . . 50 cents/week
            25 pounds every day . . . . . . . . 75 cents/week
            35 pounds every day . . . . . . . . $1.00/week
            50 pounds at one time . . . . . . . 50 cents/cwt
            50-200 pounds at one time . . . . . 40 cents/cwt
            200-500 pounds at one time  . . . . 35 cents/cwt

            500-1000 pounds at one time . . . . 30 cents/cwt
            1000-2000 pounds at one time  . . . 25 cents/cwt
            2000 and more pounds at one time  . 20 cents/cwt
            Ice on bluffs 10 cents extra per week and per cwt
            to above prices.  (7)

The price of ice could swing dramatically. In 1878 brewers paid $4.50 per ton to fill their ice houses. In January of 1879 the price ranged from 65 cents to 75 cents per ton. (8) The price must have been right for the CHICAGO GREAT WESTERN RAILROAD which in February 1897 purchased one hundred railroad cars of ice from PHILIP PIER.

Ice tongs manufactured by The Adams Company.
An old ice delivery wagon. Photo courtesy: Hotel Julien
Using an ice pick and axe, the delivery man (shown in the picture) chipped a block of ice, stored beneath heavy canvas, to the size desired by the customer. Carried with metal tongs to the customer's kitchen, the ice was placed in wooden chests that served Dubuque families for many years as the method of refrigeration. Melted ice was caught by a drip pan that had to be regularly emptied to prevent it from overflowing onto the floor.

By 1876 the increased use of refrigerators and ice boxes caused a serious decrease in supply locally. Such large businesses as Cushing, Fischer and Company announced that they would need to find other resources to supply the demands of their customers. Local ice businesses promised to do their best, but prices soared during the hot summer. (9)

A well-known figure was the man delivering the ice.
Ice card. Residents wishing a delivery of ice would place a card like this in their window. The upper number indicated the number of pounds to be purchased. Weights began at 12.5 pounds and went to 25, 50, and then 100 pounds. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Human consumption of ice from the MISSISSIPPI RIVER was repeatedly questioned. In 1895 Dr. Wieland, the city physician, analyzed and then condemned ice that had been cut from a slough. In 1897 several ice dealers announced that they would cut ice from Day's Mill north into LAKE PEOSTA into which the refuse from slaughter houses flowed. Based on that information, the Board of Health notified all ice dealers not to cut ice from any area other than the main channel. Failure to follow this instruction would lead to the ice being condemned for domestic use. (10)

In January, 1885 Cushing and Fischer had 250 men and 40 teams involved in cutting ice at [ZOLLICOFFER'S LAKE]]. The firm already had 5,000 tons of ice, sixteen inches thick being stored. An estimated 150 men and 40 teams were involved in filling the ice houses at the foot of Third Street. Workers were also involved in filling 300 railroad cars with ice for destinations between Dubuque and Cairo, Illinois. An order of 1,000 tons was to be shipped to Jackson, Mississippi and an equal amount to Cairo, Illinois. The company estimated that at the finish of the ice harvest an estimated 25,000 tons of ice would be placed in storage. (11)

Wages paid were an important source of income in Dubuque. Teams were paid $3.00 daily with laborers earning from $1.25 to $1.50. (12)

In 1885 the second largest ice harvesting firm was Pier and Ackerman. They had 30 teams and 150 men cutting ice on [[LAKE PEOSTA] and three large ice houses at the foot of 14th Street. Each storage facility could hold 5,000 tons. Pier and Ackerman also had the contract for fulling three ice houses belonging to the Heeb and Glab breweries. (13)

In January, 1903 the board of health issued an order that no ice for domestic consumption could be cut below the north line of the Ice Harbor.

     This order will have the result of giving the city 
     ice of a pure and wholesome character as it is cut 
     above the points where the city sewers empty into 
     the river. (14)

Citing the increase in contagious disease and the number of deaths, Dr. B. Michel, physician assigned the Board of Health, linked the reported (36) and suspected (200) number of deaths from TYPHOID largely to drinking impure water. (15) He stated that those afflicted were usually those who did not drink city water. He went on, however, to state that the ice fields had been inspected by the board and "since the ice was coming from the main channel it should be of good quality."(16)

Supplied with ice, insulated cabinets allowed house guests to be treated with cold peaches in the summer. Photo courtesy: John Muir National Historic Site, Martinez, California
Ice harvesting provided seasonal employment for many people of Dubuque. In 1914, as an example, it was estimated that the harvest would mean that 600 men or all the surplus workers in Dubuque could find employment with the big three packers. (17) Three of the leading packers in 1916 were Thomas James MULGREW, CONLIN AND KEARNS, and the FISCHER ICE COMPANY. (18) In 1916 reports showed that all ice concerns were each employing crews of between 75-125 men. (19)

Many companies were involved in harvesting ice and each maintained their own "territory" on the river within a decision of the Iowa Supreme Court. In 1901 the Court ruled that individuals or businesses could not stake the banks of a stream prior to it being frozen and ready for cutting. (20) DUBUQUE BREWING AND MALTING COMPANY established their cutting territory in "Hooper's Cut." DUBUQUE STAR BREWING COMPANY cut ice from the river directly in front of their business. Christopher Capritz operated his own ice house and cut ice from the river below the EAGLE POINT BRIDGE. The MILWAUKEE RAILROAD SHOPS operated a field on the river and inlets near their business. Mulgrew had a field below the DUBUQUE HIGH BRIDGE from which they expected to take 30,000 tons of ice in 1910. The Fischer Ice Company operated in an area opposite their ice house just above Third Street. (21)

In 1906 an alleged ICE TRUST made a major news item in the local newspaper.

In 1924 the ice harvest continued as a local business although ice-making machines were becoming increasingly common. In 1851, John Gorrie was awarded US Patent 8080 for an ice machine. (22) In 1853, Alexander Twining was awarded US Patent 10221 for an ice maker. (23) In 1867, Andrew Muhl built an ice-making machine in San Antonio, Texas, to help service the expanding beef industry before moving it to Waco in 1871. In 1873, the patent for this machine was contracted by the Columbus Iron Works, which produced the world's first commercial ice-makers. (24)

In 1924 it was estimated that over one million cakes of ice (one foot long, one foot wide, and fifteen inches thick) would be removed from the river. (25) The thickness of the ice varied. In 1936 reports showed the ice had reached a thickness of 24 inches. (26) Local consumption accounted for two-thirds of the ice sold, while the rest was shipped to points within 150 miles or used in railroad refrigeration. (27)

Just prior to WORLD WAR I large scale ice harvesting began to diminish with electricity making modern refrigerators more common. (28) In 1941 Conlin and Kearns employed a crew of only fifty. Mulgrew and Company fielded a crew of sixty which was expected to complete their work in four days. (29)

Chris Capretz harvesting ice near Dubuque. Photo courtesy: Paul Lembke
An unknown ice house in Dubuque. Photo courtesy: Paul Lembke
Loading ice in Dubuque. Photo courtesy: Paul Lembke



1. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, February 4, 1897, p. 5

2. "Too Cold for Ice Crews to Work, Telegraph Herald, January 2, 1920, p. 9 Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19200102&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

3. "Ice Operations Are Halted by Weather," Telegraph Herald, February 2, 1914, p. 3

4. "Ice Harbor in 1906," Telegraph Herald, June 22, 1975, p. 4. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ZwpRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Z8IMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6865,3326605&dq=ice+harvesting+dubuque&hl=en

5. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, August 15, 1874, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18740815&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

6. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, July 14, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760714&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

7. "To All Ice Consumers of Dubuque," Dubuque Herald, March 12, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760312&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

8. "Cheap Ice," Dubuque Herald, January 8, 1879, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18790108&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

9. "The Ice Crop Becoming Exhausted," Dubuque Herald, July 15, 1876, p. 4. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760715&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

10. "To Watch Icemen," Dubuque Herald, January 30, 1897, p. 8

11. "The Ice Harvest," The Dubuque Herald, January 16, 1885, p. 4

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. "Insures Pure Ice," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, January 6, 2003, p. 3

15. "Victims of Fever," Dubuque Telegraph Herald, May 12, 1903, p. 2. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=iXdiAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IncNAAAAIBAJ&pg=3949,6863621&dq=river+ice+contaminated+dubuque&hl=en

16. Ibid. (Lead courtesy of Jeff Gruber)

17. "Ice Harvest May Commence Monday," Telegraph Herald, Jan. 31, 1914, p. 2. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=HKJdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=9FwNAAAAIBAJ&pg=5360,7216845&dq=ice+harvesting+dubuque&hl=en

18. "Ice Harvesting Opens in Dubuque," Telegraph Herald, Jan 18, 1916, p. 14. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=IAheAAAAIBAJ&sjid=3l8NAAAAIBAJ&pg=4034,815506&dq=ice+harvesting+dubuque&hl=en

19. Ibid.

20. "Important Decision," Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Dec. 21, 1901.

21. "Begin Ice Harvest This Week," Telegraph Herald, Jan. 7, 1910, p. 9. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=px9CAAAAIBAJ&sjid=a6oMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3796,7236362&dq=ice+harvesting+dubuque&hl=en

22. Wikipedia. Ice Maker. Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icemaker

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. "Harvesting the Ice," Telegraph Herald, Feb. 12, 1924, p. 12. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=liVFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=W7sMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1235,7817184&dq=ice+harvesting+dubuque&hl=en

26. "Ice Harvest Held Up Due to Cold," Telegraph Herald, Feb. 11, 1936, p. 5. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=oONBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4akMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3730,939853&dq=ice+harvesting+dubuque&hl=en

27. Ibid.

28. Hogstrom, Erik., "River Museum Seeks Winter Artifacts for Ice Fest," Telegraph Herald, Jan. 10, 2004, p. 3. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=XpZdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=qlwNAAAAIBAJ&pg=2218,2087245&dq=ice+harvesting+dubuque&hl=en

28. "Ice Harvest Started Here," Telegraph Herald, Feb. 23, 1941, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=nRNRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IssMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5332,1637656&dq=ice+harvesting+dubuque&hl=en

An ice harvest with blocks ready for hauling to an ice house. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Coupons good for 25 pounds of ice. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Ice picks used to chip off the needed amount of ice for a home or occasion.Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Picture of an iceplow for cutting ice. Photo courtesy: Potosi Brewing Company
Picture of a riding plow. Photo courtesy: Potosi Brewing Company
Photo courtesy: Potosi Brewing Company
Photo courtesy: Potosi Brewing Company
Photo courtesy: Potosi Brewing Company

Harvesting the River: Harvesting: Ice: Ice Harvesting Process ... www.museum.state.il.us › Home › Harvesting › Ice

Home Page of Ice, Harvesting & History. http://www.museum.state.il.us/RiverWeb/harvesting/harvest/ice/ice_harvesting.html.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8G5XiZNr-w Ice harvesting at Lake Stillwater in 1921 (Courtesy: Jeff Gruber)