A City Shaped by Fire and Ice

by Coggin Heeringa

Fire & Ice is more than a catchy name for a Sturgeon Bay festival. The name also evokes history because through the years, the city has repeatedly been changed by fire and ice.

A case in point is an area on Sturgeon Bay’s west side, originally known as Bay View. This residential neighborhood with its spectacular views and charming Otumba Park is still called Bay View by some, but few know that before its annexation to Sturgeon Bay, Bay View was a bustling industrial village. The industry was ice harvesting.

Before the advent of refrigeration, ice was a valuable commodity, and harvesting, storing and shipping blocks of ice was big business – by 1880-90 standards, anyway – in Sturgeon Bay.

Demand was great. Chicago (which disposed of its raw sewage in the Chicago River and Lake Michigan) could consume as much unpolluted ice for meat packing and home use (in iceboxes) as Door County could provide. Milwaukee also desperately needed clean ice for its breweries.

As many as 700 Door County men – mostly local farmers – sawed and extracted acres and acres of large blocks of ice every winter and stored them in icehouses. Readily available sawdust (Sturgeon Bay had three large sawmills) was piled between ice layers for insulation. During the summer, ice was carried by boat to the cities, which could be dicey.

In his book Discovering Door County’s Past, author Marvin Lotz explained, “One of the risks involving shipping was keeping the ice on board in rough seas. There were a number of incidents when a substantial part of the cargo slid overboard and was lost.” He continued, “Harvesting brought dangers to people that skated or walked on the ice. Cutting was made illegal on specified areas of the Bay.”

Apparently cutters had to leave an ice bridge between the town of Sawyer (the west side) and the town of Sturgeon Bay (the east side) so that Northern Door would not be cut off from the rest of the world. Six or seven ice companies operated out of Sturgeon Bay, and during cold winters, ice harvesting was profitable.

To cash in on some of that potential, the Hammond Ice Company decided in 1890 to construct a huge icehouse complex in Bay View. Apparently, these outsiders (Chicagoans! or, it has been suggested, perhaps a syndicate in London) wanted some concessions, as reported in one of several Sturgeon Bay newspapers. 

The Democrat wrote that “some of our business men are taking steps to inaugurate a more liberal policy toward the ice companies in the matter of taxation. These companies are spending many thousands of dollars among our people, and at a time when that money is most needed. Not only are citizens of this village benefited, but farmers from the surrounding country find remunerative employment for themselves and teams. In the erection of ice houses, every man who can drive a nail straight receives at least two dollars a day … It is poor economy therefore to ‘kill the goose that lays the golden eggs’ by so heavily taxing the companies that they are driven from us.”

Some deal must have been struck, because in 1890, construction began. The Hammond Ice Company built a complex of 15 icehouses, each measuring 175 feet by 30 feet and 28 feet high. Ice was loaded by a steam engine and an “endless chain” – an elevator that carried the ice up at the rate of 28 cakes per minute.

Another newspaper, The Independent, reported on Feb. 2, 1890, that “their improved process of conveying the ice up the slide enables them to store about 2,000 tons per day.”

Hammond seems to have shipped ice for only one season. By the next year, newspaper references sort of evaporated, not unlike the industry itself. Railroad transportation was becoming more efficient because the tracks could go directly into the meat-packing plants, and “modern” refrigeration processes were being developed. Ice harvesting slowed to a trickle, and records indicate that the enormous Hammond icehouses were sold in 1894.

Steven Rice, the Door County Historical Museum’s museum and archives manager, discovered that “the icehouses burned in 1895, possibly as an insurance scam, and the taxes on the property went unpaid for five years afterward. The site was redeveloped into the current residential area in the early 1900s. What became of Hammond is anyone’s guess. They likely either folded, or were bought out by the Knickerbocker Ice Trust (the regional monopoly at the time) around or before 1898. All in all, a pretty shady operation that is highly representative of the ice industry of that era.”

Ice harvesting for home use continued through the middle of the 20th century because it was a long time before many residences in the county had electric refrigerators. Many homes even had their own icehouse, some of which are still standing. But ice harvesting as big business in Door County was over.

Both fire and ice shaped Bay View. Had the icehouses not burned down, would this prime real estate have become a shipyard or factory? Would there have been an Otumba Park? Would Woolly, the woolly mammoth statue, be watching over the winter fleet? That all remains a matter of speculation, but we know with certainty that the ice industry melted away, leaving not a trace.