The potential and perils of ice have changed with time

Mychal Wilmes' father once worked on ice harvesting crews, but Mychal hasn't necessarily enjoyed the same relationship with ice.

Clear ice is partially obscured by snow.
The ice industry once was big business in northern climates.
Courtesy / Pixabay

Harvesting ice was a major industry in the early 1900s before electricity and mechanical refrigeration was widely available in many rural towns and farmsteads.

Dad, who sometimes worked on a harvesting crew, talked about his farmer neighbors getting together for the harvest. It was hard work, but worth it because ice properly stored inside a building and beneath a thick layer of sawdust might last until July 4 and beyond.

Mother, not unlike other housewives, managed without refrigeration. Beef, chicken and pork were canned. She also stored pork chops in a Red Wing crock that was covered in a thick layer of fat.

Rural businesses — the creameries, butcher shops and other businesses that town residents and farmers relied on — depended on the ice harvest and it became a major employment opportunity in communities blessed with nearby rivers and streams.

Farmers during slower winter months joined harvesting crews operated by businesses that commercially sold ice blocks. For example, as many as 70 men were employed to harvest ice in Mankato, Minnesota, in the early 20th century. Men (many of them farmers) could earn as much as $3 per day working from sunup until late in the afternoon.


mychal wilmes.jpg
Mychal Wilmes

The work was hard and dangerous for both horses and humans, and required good equipment. Necessary tools included two-man saws, sturdy tongs to lift the ice blocks, chains, ropes, and horse-drawn plows to clear snow off the ice.

Horses that fell through the ice could be lost while men who slipped in were most often rescued. The ice — monitored for safety by the state — was not inexpensive.

The industry withered and died when rural cooperatives brought electricity to farms and homesteads. Getting rural homes hooked up occasionally met opposition. Some thought the monthly cost was too great, while others were suspicious of its safety and intrusion on traditional ways.

Dad — although ice harvesting was no more — never lost his love for ice fishing, be it with a spear or line. Many days, when the winter sun provided a hint of warmth, were spent fishing with his buddies.

He once lured me to going along when a great ice fishing contest was held on a nearby lake. A big prize would go to the person who caught the biggest fish and other prizes were also given out.

Mother warned that I would get cold standing around without anything to do. Two pair of socks, newspaper stuffed into three-buckle boots, and a borrowed pair of long johns were no match for the bitter cold.

The car could have provided warmth, but Dad kept the keys in his pocket. He also refused to go until the last prize was awarded. It was the last time I’d accompany him ice fishing. Ice remains an enemy now that Kathy says that winter’s freezing and thawing makes it too risky to take walks around the neighborhood. Even the path to where birds are fed is not without risk.

However, the blue jays, rarely seen cardinals and other species that overwinter here need to eat. The birds compete with ever-present squirrels for space at the table. Seven squirrels chased the birds away the other day, which caused me to yell at them.


The commotion caused Kathy to ask what in the world was going on. I explained that I was just venting frustration about the ravenous squirrels, the cost of bird feed, and the ice on the walkway.

“You need to get a squirrel-proof feeder," she said.

I don’t think such a thing exists.

The late February sun is gathering strength. Kathy — over my objections — has ordered product from the seed catalogs before asking what I intend to plant. It’s much too early to think about that. Two more March blizzards are needed before planting season arrives.

It’s a blue-sky and calm February day with the temperature reaching into the low 30s, which Dad would have spent ice fishing.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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