Hard labor not for the weary took place every winter for two weeks until the early 1950s. Chunks of ice were cut from our area lakes and moved into warehouses, railcars or trucks, where they were later sent by rail throughout the Midwest or delivered via trucks to area communities.
Ice harvesting was back breaking work that became a major source of income during winter months for many in the Iowa Great Lakes area. As a 12-year-old, Don Gregerson’s family moved to the area from Worthington, MN, after his parents purchased Lakeview Beach Resort in 1944, which was situated in the area where The Ritz exists today.
Later renamed Gregerson’s Resort, Don’s dad Ralph learned how many resort owners became active ice harvesters during the winter months for extra sources of income.
“My dad agreed to be a truck driver for Allen Ice Company, where he would back the truck up onto the ice near the channel, and a crew would attach the harness that was used to drag the ice blocks onto the truck. Then he would deliver to the warehouse near where the Arnolds Park water tower is now located,” Don said. “The problem was my dad couldn’t swim and had always been afraid of water, but he agreed to drive the truck.”
Ralph would take ribbing from coworkers on how he’d always keep a foot in the door, just in case he’d have to jump out quick.
This quick thinking most likely saved his life one traumatic day, as suddenly, the weight of the truck on Smith’s Bay caused the ice to go up on one end. Ralph felt the back seat tilt and the truck began elevating above normal levels. The other men began running for shore. As the truck was sliding into the lake, Ralph jumped over open water to solid ice. After the truck fell in, the ice slid back, and a person could walk where the truck had sat.
Later that day, Don came home from high school basketball practice and found his Dad sitting at the supper table. His mom was upset and the ashtray in front of Ralph was towering over a pile of cigarette butts.
“Crazy enough, my Dad went back to work the next day. He got permission to add weight and chains to his personal truck and it became the new ice mover,” he added. “He did take a lot of teasing about what happened, and his close friend Bill Stolley, Arnolds Park’s Fire Chief at the time, even wrote a poem that included a little diagram and was later published in the Milford Mail.”
To this day, the truck rests at the bottom of Smith’s Bay, a popular spot for divers and underwater photographers. It has shifted direction from the initial dive and a friend of the Gregerson’s always finds the spot in the spring when he flies over West Lake Okoboji.
“One theory is the truck moved directions from where it first fill in, as it was in the spot where the Queen would’ve turned. A friend thinks the boat caused the water to move the truck,” Don said.
Process of Ice Harvesting
The operational process of ice harvesting was dangerous and hard. The men would wear mittens over light gloves and four-buckle overshoes with cleats.
“Our goal was to not get wet and to get done without getting pneumonia,” Don said.
As a teenager, Don began working at the McKinney Ice Field, which was located east of Kum & Go and would fill their warehouse and railcars alongside Brook’s Beach Resort. One of Don’s jobs was to stand on a little platform by a channel and take a needle bar (a long-pointed piece of iron) and scour or drive the needle through the precut 300 pound blocks of ice. The chunks would then float down the channel and up the elevator where the ice was loaded into boxcars.
They would fill between six to eight boxcars at a time before an engine would pull up and take them on their way. Then the process would start over again. One person would stand at the entry and two more would be inside at different corners. They would fill each level, going as high as they could, with ice chunks that were approximately two feet by four feet long.
“The blocks couldn’t be cut until the ice was about 16-18 inches thick. They would lay out the ice field every day, and if there was a year that we had a large snow fall before the ice got thick, the men would go out and clear the snow off the ice first, to help it thicken,” Don shared.
Every night, two men would be out keeping the channel open, because if it froze, it would shut down the process for the next day. The men also didn’t fully cut each block until closer to shore to prevent the blocks from freezing together.
When Don worked at Allen Ice Company, he worked in the warehouse and helped deliver blocks to spots around the building. They would start at the main level and fill up the big building until it couldn’t go higher, and the workers were bending over. One person would grab a smoothed-out block with a tong and then send it flying across the ice level to a man waiting to position it. They would use sawdust around the layers to keep the blocks from freezing together.
“The first time I watched a guy send the blocks flying across the floor and soon after, he said ‘Your turn!’” Don remembered. “I went oh but quickly caught on, because you didn’t want the guys to get upset at you. It was like being quarterback and the people catching the ‘ball’ had to pay attention, because there was a 300-lb block of ice coming at them. It was then positioned like Dominoes.”
The ice blocks were then sold and delivered via routes that filled ice boxes at residential homes, cabins and resorts. The big blocks would keep a “fridge” cold for several days, depending on how many times the door was opened. The ice blocks were used to keep meat and numerous products cold in “refrigerator” railcars.
Don said their resort took an old wooden beer display case and put it down into the ground. It held their large ice chunks used at the resort and often fishermen would also use the ice to pack their fish.
“In that day, the fish were caught to eat and less for sport,” he added.
Ice companies surrounded all the lakes in the upper Midwest, and the harvest lasted every winter for 10 days to two weeks. Men would show up from around the region to help with harvest, and each company would have their own area.
“I remember a classmate sharing how one year East Lake didn’t have enough ice so they pulled ice from West Lake to East via a channel so McKinney Ice Company would have ice for the year,” Don said.
While it’s been almost 70 years since the last ice harvest on the Iowa Great Lakes, tools and photographs from the practice can be experienced at the Dickinson County Museum. For more historical information on ice harvesting, local historian Aubrey LaFoy recently published his book, "Ice Harvesting at the Iowa Great Lakes” and can be found at his website aubreylafoy.com.