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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.

(Read more Frozen Harvest)

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.

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