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Ice Harvesting in Door County’s Early Years

For nearly a century, private homes and businesses in Door County relied on ice harvested from Green Bay or Lake Michigan for refrigeration purposes. Harvested ice was stored in numerous places around the county to be used locally throughout the non-winter months. In the late 19th century, ice harvesting for export was also big business in Door County. To serve both local and regional demand, many companies large and small operated up and down the peninsula, particularly on the bay side.

In the first volume of Discovering Door County’s Past:  A Comprehensive History of the Door Peninsula In Two Volumes, M. Marvin Lotz explains that ice was a precious commodity since “the steaming, crowded apartments and houses in the cities of the Midwest had no mechanical refrigeration. About the only way of keeping food in the home was an ice box, an insulated chest with a block of ice in the top compartment. Air coming in contact with the ice would circulate into the food compartment below and retard spoilage.” The source of this ice was the “frozen lakes or bays from which large blocks were harvested and stored in warehouses, covered with sawdust until hot weather and shipped to the metropolitan areas on sailing ships.” And, Lotz continues, “the coastal bays of the Peninsula were ideal for such operations for two decades,” with commercial ice harvesting operations found throughout the county “in harbors like Fish Creek, Ephraim (Eagle Harbor), Horseshoe Bay, Sawyer Harbor, Otumba Beach and other shoreline bays.”

The first large ice harvesting business in the county began in 1876, when Albert Marshall Spear established an ice harvesting business at Little Sturgeon. Spear built a 50,000-ton ice storage house, then quickly sold the business to the Piper Ice Company, which almost immediately built five more large warehouses. Lotz notes that “Piper employed a hundred men during the 2 to 3 month ice harvest season to cut and store the blocks cut from the bay at Little Sturgeon. Sawdust, an ideal and readily available insulation, was bought from the saw mills and spread over and around the ice to retard melting. Piper assembled a fleet of five schooners that sailed constantly between Sturgeon Bay and Chicago during the summer, carrying the ice to the wholesalers.” In History of Door County Wisconsin, The County Beautiful, Volume I, Hajlmar Holand remarks that “this business seems to have been profitable for it was followed by the entrance of a number of other ice companies in the field. In 1880 six ice companies had twelve immense storehouses in and near Sturgeon Bay, and 700 men were employed in cutting ice.”

Ice harvesting companies quickly discovered, however, the risks inherent in their new ventures. For example, ice harvested in Door County for sale elsewhere had to be shipped, and “one of the risks involved in the shipping,” writes Lotz, “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…” In addition to the cost of shipping the ice and the possible loss during the voyage, Lotz explains that “the suppliers on the Peninsula had always been at a disadvantage in that when their ships arrived at the Chicago docks, the ice had to be unloaded onto wagons or trucks, then driven through hot city streets and unloaded again at the warehouse. The labor costs and the loss in weight from melting were too much to overcome. The ice warehouses. Lotz notes that “Piper employed a hundred men during the 2 to 3 month ice harvest season to cut and store the blocks cut from the bay at Little Sturgeon. Sawdust, an ideal and readily available insulation, was bought from the saw mills and spread over and around the ice to retard melting. Piper assembled a fleet of five schooners that sailed constantly between Sturgeon Bay and Chicago during the summer, carrying the ice to the wholesalers.” In History of Door County Wisconsin, The County Beautiful, Volume I, Hajlmar Holand remarks that “this business seems to have been profitable for it was followed by the entrance of a number of other ice companies in the field. In 1880 six ice companies had twelve immense storehouses in and near Sturgeon Bay, and 700 men were employed in cutting ice.”

Photo courtesy of the Door County Historical Museum.
In early years in Door County, ice wasn’t taken for granted. Photo courtesy of the Door County Historical Museum.

Even so, Holand writes, the Door County “ice industry continued with fair success until 1890.” In that year, however, “there was a very large amount of ice cut which was held for a rise in price because the quantity obtained on inland lakes further south was small” due to warmer than normal winter weather. Unfortunately for the peninsula’s ice companies, says Lotz, the spring was also unusually warm, and “the warm spring temperature began to melt the ice stacked in the warehouses. At the same time, transportation costs were rising, offsetting any higher profits.” That confluence of events, asserts Lotz, “essentially ended the Door Peninsula ice business except for what was needed locally by tourist resorts, breweries, saloons and private homes.”

The business of harvesting ice for local use, though, continued for many years:  even 60 years ago, many private homes and businesses in Door County still relied on ice from Green Bay or Lake Michigan for refrigeration purposes. Current Ephraim residents Paul and Frances Burton report in their book, Ephraim Stories, that even in 1945 “very few houses in Ephraim had electric refrigerators.” Wayne the ice man – boy, really, as he was only 15 – “wearing a heavy leather apron [would] pull up to a house in his ice truck and glance at the card displayed in the window. It told how many pounds of ice the occupants needed:  25, 50, or 75. Selecting a block of the correct size, he’d grab it with big tongs and sling it over his shoulder. Marching proudly to the ice box on the front or back porch, he’d open the door to the metal-lined ice compartment and replace the small melted lump with a big new one. Because Wayne was too young to have a driver’s license and really shouldn’t have been driving at all, he didn’t venture past the village limits in his ice truck.”

Whether for local use or to sell in other areas, the process by which ice was harvested was the same. Edward Schreiber explains in the introduction to Fish Creek Voices that “ice harvesting to fill the ice houses in the village was an activity that lasted about three weeks each February and employed many of the town’s menfolk. There was no electrical refrigeration in those days, and the need for ice in summer was great. Most of the teams and bob-sleds in town were kept busy transporting heavy cakes of ice to the many ice-houses in the village. The cakes were cut almost through with a large motorized circular saw and then separated with an ice chisel. Once cut, they were guided to a narrow channel where they were lifted out of the water by an endless chain fitted with lugs and deposited onto a large loading platform. The blocks were then loaded onto waiting bob-sleighs and transported to the ice-houses.” Once they reached the ice houses, the ice blocks were packed with sawdust to insulate and keep them from sticking together. As amazing as it may seem today, this storage method worked well enough to allow local residents and business owners to keep their ice boxes and coolers full throughout the summer and fall.

Ice companies kept storehouses along the bay. Photo courtesy of Door County Historical Museum.

Resources

Ephraim Stories, Paul and Frances Burton. Ephraim, Wisconsin:  Stonehill Publishing, 1999.

History of Door County Wisconsin, The County Beautiful, Volume I, Hjalmar R. Holand, M.A. Chicago, Illinois:  S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1917.

Discovering Door County’s Past:  A Comprehensive History of the Door Peninsula In Two Volumes; Volume One:  From the Beginning to 1930, M. Marvin Lotz. Fish Creek, Wisconsin:  Holly House Press, 1994.

Fish Creek Voices:  An Oral History of a Door County Village, Edward and Lois Schreiber, editors. Sister Bay, Wisconsin:  Wm. Caxton Ltd., 1990.