One of the neat things about the Ice Palace, the Ice Maze, and the Ice “News Office”—and everything Polar Fest is doing with 600-pound blocks of ice this year—is that the ice came directly from Lake Detroit, near the historic center of the city. Flag.
Sure, modern harvesting involves Bobcat loaders and big power saws, but it also involves the use of more traditional methods and tools, like using ice picks to float the big ice cakes on a treadmill, then shave them down to a standard size. .
This activity strikes a chord with the Detroit Lakes elders, as winter “ice harvesting” was an economic staple from the turn of the last century until around 1960.
At the time, ice harvesting was Becker County’s second-largest industry, second only to lumber and logging, according to information from the Tribune Archives and the Becker County Historical Society.
At the age of 17, Larry Howard was working piling blocks of ice into train cars.
“I grabbed the first cake and came right out the other side of the boxcar and landed on the runway, and they were all laughing at me and saying, ‘That’s how you don’t. don’t! ‘” he wrote of his memories of the ice harvest, which are in the records of the Historical Society.
Howard worked for Fargo-Detroit Ice Works, like many other local men.
“At that time,” he said, “almost everyone who could get along worked there because there wasn’t much else to do there in the winter.”
Beginning in 1888, Detroit Lakes notable John West began harvesting ice from Lake Detroit with the help of only a few men. Fifteen years later, the company was incorporated as the Fargo-Detroit Ice Company.
In 1903, the company produced enough ice to fill 25 railroad cars. By 1925 it was producing enough to fill 4,500 cars.
“It was quite an experience. It was hard work.”
Dick Duffney, who used to stack blocks of ice during ancient ice harvests
In 1945, Fargo-Detroit was the largest company in Detroit Lakes. It had a payroll of $38,000 and employed 40 to 60 men in the winter and 15 to 25 during the other seasons.
In 1951, the payroll for all harvesting men was $50,000.
That equates to about $600 apiece – about $6,500 in today’s dollars – for a ton of work. It was very hard work for little pay, and it could be dangerous for both men and horses, especially at first.
One of the men who worked on the wagons was Dick Duffney. He stacked blocks of ice in three tiers, and by the third stack, he said, they were easy to put in place.
“I always found new muscles every day,” he said. “It was quite an experience. It was hard work.”
Ted Gunderson, who worked for the ice company for 60 years, said in a 1963 newspaper article that working on the lake was dangerous.
He saw the McCabe brothers crash their car through a thin layer of ice at the harvest site, on the way to their fish market. One of the brothers died before they could be rescued.
He also saw two men working for the company die and several teams of horses fall and drown.
But there wasn’t much else to do for money in Detroit Lakes in the winter then, and in later years, at least, some men enjoyed the work.
“It was pretty fun,” said Ike Fischer of Frazee, who worked ice harvesting at Frazee, which used horses more.
Before electrification and the widespread use of electric refrigerators and freezers, “coolers” were the name of the game in the average kitchen, and they kept food cool with a block of ice cut out in places like Lake Detroit.
Much of the ice harvested from Detroit’s lakes went to the Northern Pacific Railroad to keep their goods refrigerated. It was also shipped by train across the country.
Here is the process that was used to harvest the ice, according to an article by local historian Roger Engstrom housed at the Becker County Museum:
First, the men dug a channel in the lake so the blocks would be cleaner, with less dirt and debris.
According to Engstrom’s story, “a circular saw, powered by a Model A motor of about 25 horsepower, cut the ice halfway through. The ice was ‘cut’ into ‘cakes’ measuring 22 by 32 “Ice sawdust” was packed into the cup to prevent water from entering the cup and freezing. When completed, a “float” was cut, which was 10 cakes wide and 40 cakes high long.
“When the float arrived at the tram, the ‘pond saw’ finished the cut down to the water, making a strip two cakes wide and 40 cakes long.”
From there, men with gaffs guided the gangs into place near the tram. The imperfect cakes went into a waste pile, which sometimes took until July to melt.
Perfect cakes weighing 400 pounds or more continued on the tram and were loaded onto the railroad cars.
“As the cakes moved up the tram, they passed under a planer which cut them all to the same thickness and made grooves in the cakes. The grooves in the cakes kept the cakes from freezing together,” Engstrom wrote. .
Ice cakes that were not loaded onto the trains were stored in the coolers, located where the Holiday Inn stands today.
“It was kind of fun.”
Ike Fischer, who worked on the old Frazee Ice Harvests
The ice harvest usually started between Christmas and New Years and lasted about two months. The ice that was stored in the warehouse, where the Holiday Inn now stands, was covered in sawdust, which would keep the ice from melting all summer, at least in theory, Engstrom said.
An editorial by Ken Prentice, published on July 27, 1990, announced that Fargo-Detroit Beverages would no longer be harvesting ice cream.
“When the ice on Big Detroit goes unharvested this winter, many local residents will miss the passing of an era,” he wrote. “One of the penalties we pay for continuous improvements and a better way of life.”