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Timeline: Frozen Harvest


Cedar Falls’ Ice House Museum Shares
the History of Iowa’s Coolest Crop

Story by Mary Gottschalk

The next time you casually plop an ice cube into your beverage glass, consider the generations of Iowa farmers who undertook the grueling and often dangerous work of harvesting ice in the worst of the winter cold.

Throughout much of the 1800s horses dragging cutters were used to score frozen rivers and lakes in rectangular grids roughly 2 feet by 3 feet. Horse-drawn metal plows then dug grooves into the grids that were deep enough for ice workers to break off blocks using axes, chisels, picks, or ice saws. The task was made easier in the early 1900s with the advent of motorized saws.

As blocks broke off, they drifted or were poled to an icehouse at the water’s edge. Blocks were loaded onto a chute or conveyor belt and moved into the icehouse, where they were stacked in layers, each block surrounded by an insulating material such as sawdust or hay.

Ice harvesting remained a major Iowa industry until the 1930s, when the combination of several back-to-back warm winters and the introduction of home refrigerators made ice harvesting increasingly uneconomic. By the end of World War II virtually all commercial purveyors of ice in Iowa used manufactured ice.

Icehouses tended to be rectangular buildings, but Iowa had two unique exceptions. In McGregor ice was stored in sandstone caves carved out of the hillside as early as the 1840s. Cedar Falls began with a conventional icehouse in 1858. A new design arrived in 1921; ice was less vulnerable to melting in the round brick building because of the smaller exterior surface. Today it’s the only round icehouse in the United States and has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Major renovations by the Cedar Falls Historical Society (CFHS) have transformed the structure into the Ice House Museum, dedicated to telling the story of natural ice production through exhibits, films, and lectures. “It is unique nationally,” says CFHS Board Chair Donald Redfern, “because it’s one of only two icehouses in the country to tell their own story of natural ice harvesting.”

Clean & Cold

Not all frozen water was created equal. The water source — a gently flowing river or deep lake — had to be pure and uncontaminated by the drainage from nearby or upstream communities.

Ice production also required steady cold weather to produce clear, dense ice that was thick enough to support the weight of horses, men, and equipment (at least 12 inches thick, but preferably 18 inches). Quality was critical; ice formed during periods of erratic temperatures and/or with bubbles frozen into it was undesirable because it was likely to melt rapidly once the weather warmed.

A Short History of Ice

One of the first recorded uses of natural ice to preserve food and make ice cream was in China in 1000 B.C. Richard the Lionheart purportedly feasted on gifts of frozen sherbets from the sultan of Syria during the 12th-century Crusades.

Until the mid-1800s ice was a luxury item. Even if you were a farmer able to hack your own ice out of a nearby pond, it was almost impossible to store unless, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, you could afford to build your own brick-lined icehouse.

The first commercial production of natural ice in the country came in 1806, when a Bostonian, Frederick Tudor, figured out how to ship lake ice to the Caribbean island of Martinique. Within 20 years natural ice became one of America’s most significant natural resources.

While there’s no reliable data on total production of natural ice during the 1800s, statistics on U.S. consumption indicate that by 1900 more than 10 million tons of ice were used annually. Exports, however, dwarfed domestic consumption. According to Redfern, the only U.S. commodity with a larger export market than ice in 1880 was cotton. In 1890 — when the foreign demand for natural ice was already on the decline — the U.S. exported 25 million tons.

Before the Snow Flies

The Ice House Museum is open to visitors May through October (Wed., Sun. 1–4 p.m.; Sat. 10–4 p.m.). For more information, visit or call 319-266-5149.

Mary Gottschalk is a freelance writer in Des Moines.

Photos courtesy Cedar Falls Historical Society and Mary Gottschalk.

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