Friday, Jan. 24, 1890: Cedar Lake ice harvest

Posted on January 28th, 2008 – 1:33 AM
By Ben Welter

Bundle up, dear reader, and join a Minneapolis Tribune reporter for a behind-the-scenes look at the Cedar Lake ice harvest of 1890. It’s a fairly clear and moderately engaging account of a process unfamiliar to most of us. But what in tarnation is a “Sam Joneism”?

A Cedar Lake Ice Co. wagon hauling ice in about 1896. (Photo courtesy


The One and Only Minnesota
Crop Which is Never
a Failure

How Ice is Taken from the
Lakes and Stored in

There is one crop in Minnesota that never fails. Chinch bugs cannot eat it, rust has no effect upon it, and the cyclone fails to level it to the ground. To use a Sam Joneism, “a fellow can bank on it.” It is scarcely necessary to remark that the ice crop is meant.

Occasionally the winter is sufficiently mild to prevent St. Paul from building an ice palace, but never in the history of the state has the iceman failed to reap an abundant harvest. The only thing the average citizen can’t quite understand is why, when the climate produces such a plentiful supply of the commodity, he is unable to get a larger chunk of it for his money during the dog days. This is doubtless a question which will never be answered on this side [of] the pearly gates.

Ice harvest, possibly Lake Minnetonka, circa 1900. (Photo courtesy

In Minnesota the ice harvest generally begins in January and lasts about six weeks, although some firms extend the season to two months or more in order to give employment to their men as long as possible. The present season thus far has been very favorable for the dealers. The cold weather came on early enough to make a good coating of ice on the surface of the lakes and rivers, so that work could begin early in the present month. As a rule the dealers do not care to harvest ice that is less than 16 inches thick, and a few years ago that thickness was not considered sufficient. The great bulk of ice used in Minneapolis is taken from the surrounding lakes. What is cut from the river is delivered only to butchers and others who use large quantities for coating purposes. Private families, hotels, restaurants and the boarding houses are served with lake ice. The four leading firms who deal in the crystal product are the Cedar Lake Ice Company, H. Westphal, the Boston Ice Company and J.W. Day. These are given in order of the business transacted. The yearly product is close on to 150,000 tons, and the cut this season will probably somewhat greater than usual. As a rule all the ice cut at Minneapolis is used to supply


Occasionally orders are received from outside points. Southern dealers generally cut their own ice in some of the Northern States rather than contract it from local firms.

Cedar Lake Ice Co. barn, 1899. (Photo courtesy

Notwithstanding the fact that ice is such a plentiful commodity in Minnesota, comparatively few people understand the modus operandi employed in harvesting it. In order to furnish information for this larger class a Tribune reporter accepted an invitation from Mayor E.C. Babb yesterday to take a drive to Cedar Lake and witness the operations of the men employed by the Cedar Lake Ice Company, of which the mayor is president.

Seated beside the mayor in his covered family sleigh and comfortably wrapped up in warm robes, the scribe was driven out to Twenty-eighth street, thence across Lake of the Isles, through Kenwood to Cedar Lake. Here a busy scene met the eye. Many men were employed, some in cutting the product, others in skidding it up an inclined plane on to large platforms, and still others were loading it on to sleds to haul it [to] the ice houses. It is well to explain at this point that the company has several ice houses, situated in different parts of the city. It considers it more convenient to distribute the ice from these scattered centers than from one cluster of houses on the lake shore. It has one large house at Lake Calhoun, which will not be filled until after the others.

Ice harvest, Mississippi River, circa 1900. (Photo courtesy

The first thing to be done in beginning the harvest is to clear the ice of snow, if there be any. A straight line is then made no the surface of the ice, and the “marker” started. This is a machine having handles like a plow. Attached to the lower end of the handles is an iron bar about six feet long, to the under side of which are attached knives somewhat resembling saw teeth. Each tooth has a heel at the rear which allows the tooth to sink into the ice a quarter of an inch. Each succeeding knife is placed directly behind the one in front and is a quarter of an inch longer. It is thus readily seen that the depth of the groove is found by multiplying one-fourth of an inch by the number of teeth.

The marker marks a groove two inches deep. When a groove has been made the desired length, the marker is reversed. A thin piece of steel parallel to the bar bearing the knives, and which can be set at any desired distance from it, is placed in the groove already made and the return trip made. A new groove is thus made at each trip. The grooves are made 22 inches apart one way and three feet apart the other. This gives a block of ice three feet long and 22 inches wide, the thickness being regulated by Jack Frost. The marker is drawn by a team of horses. After the ice has been marked, an implement similar to the marker and propelled by the same power,


are 12 inches long, and on which there is no guide, is used to deepen the groove. As it sinks to two inches each trip, five trips are required to make the grooves the requisite depth. An opening is then made with saws and the blocks hauled out. When a long and narrow opening has been made, large cakes containing 100 blocks are detached at a time. A man armed with a weapon which is a cross between Neptune’s trident and a large garden fork, then leaps nimbly upon the large cake, and by thrusting his weapon into the deep groves, dexterously and rapidly splits them up into blocks. An experienced hand will easily break up a 100 block cake in five minutes. The blocks are then guided through a narrow sluiceway in the ice by men armed with an implement resembling a lumberman’s pick. Here they are run up a short incline by means of horse power and pulleys. When the top is reached the blocks slide down another incline to a platform, where they are loaded. Four of these blocks are estimated to weigh a ton, and the teams haul from 16 to 20 blocks at a load. The company is now employing about 50 teams.

Ice harvest, possibly Lake Minnetonka, circa 1900. (Photo courtesy

When the teams arrive at the ice house, the ice is unloaded on to a platform and raised perpendicularly by steam lifts into the building. These lifts easily raise four tons in 1½ minutes. With the force of men now employed the company can store 1,000 tons per day. When the blocks enter the building gravity sends them spinning along runways in different directions. Workmen then seize them with picks and place them in tiers one upon another, where the will remain until doled out in microscopic bits to customers next summer.

This plan of operation is the one employed by most of the larger ice companies. The smaller firms run the blocks up inclined planks into the houses, and this plan is often adopted when the houses are situated on the banks of the body of water where the ice is harvested.

The ice harvest is now booming all along the line. To stand in one of the immense houses chills one to the marrow. The only thing that makes him at all comfortable is the thought of the refreshment he may receive next summer from an elegant lemonade cooing with a piece of one of the huge cakes that lay all around him. The ice that is now being taken out of the lakes is as clear as crystal and so pure that no typhoid germs lie concealed within. It would make a St. Paul man sick to look at it and reflect that his city decided not to have an ice palace this winter.

Winter Carnival ice palace, 1888. (Photo courtesy
Harvesting ice at Fort Snelling in about 1890. (Photo courtesy

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