Ice Making

Moving the ice blocks "cakes" into the ice house on the Mississippi River

McCann-Wessler Ice House 1939

Marguerite Sartell McCann, with son Jack age 3, watch the workers harvesting the ice. 1940

The exposed frame of the icehouse. 1939

Some of the tools used by the McCann's to harvest ice on the Mississippi, a bowl of sawdust is also on display

Ice Making

By Thomas Sartell

“One winter activity one seldom hears about anymore is ice harvesting, a colorful, cold and tiring occupation that kept quite a few people busy for several weeks in January of each year. Ice harvesting in the old way is still practiced in a few places but not to any great extent.

It wasn’t until early in January that the river ice was judged thick enough to yield the size and quality of blocks that would measure up to standards. Those standards were best met about one half mile up river from the dam and from just north of the sawmill. There, near the west bank, the ice froze from clear, modestly slow—moving water and in later years was closer to a sizeable ice house that could store most of the harvest for summer use.

Much has been written about modern ice harvesting, where it is still done, and the mechanized saws, similar to crosscut saws, a single sawyer on each saw, with several cutting in each direction to make for evenly squared cakes. Even in the coldest weather, such activity was guaranteed to keep the men warm, yes, even sweating.

As sawing was completed for several cakes, they were pried apart with crowbar like ice chisels before they could freeze together again and floated toward a skid to bring them up onto the surface of the surrounding ice. Some continued on skidding ramps into the ice house. Others were loaded onto sleds pulled by horses. The ice house ice was covered by sawdust to provide insulation to preserve it even into the warmed weather. Any ice left over at the time of the new harvest would be hauled from the ice houses and left to melt with the upcoming spring sun because it had probably lost some of its bulk. The sawdust used was a by-product of the Sartell Brothers sawmill and planning mill.

Of course, one of the immediate results of the ice cutting was that it left a sizeable open space of water, a danger to skaters, skiers, curious children and vehicles that used the surface of the river. So fencing of some sort in the form of ice blocks, ropes, and flags was installed to keep outsiders away.

The sled loads of ice, each cake probably weighing over 100 pounds, were drawn down the river surface and up the gentle bank in front of our house, onto the river road. They went several directions from there to fill a number of private ice houses about town, including our own. Hard work—and the horses seemed to keep warm from it, too, as their facial features became frost-covered and they had blankets thrown over them when they were standing still to keep them from cooling off too fast in the frigid air.

It seems to me that ice had to be 18 inches to 24 inches thick before it would be cut. The open water created when it was cut and removed quickly froze over and, it seems to me, in a few days acquired once more a thickness again worth cutting, barring any insulating snow falls or January thaws.

Of course it was always delightful to go into an ice house on hot summer days. What a change from outside temperature. And what a place to keep a watermelon icy cold until needed.

My first recollection of ice harvesting is that it was another, seasonal activity of Sartell Brothers, in their jacks-of-all-trades enterprise. Over the years they gradually turned the activity over to those who were in the ice delivery business in Sartell, Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud. Those in the 1920s and 1930s were the Kerr’s and, later, the McCann’s.”

This is a quote from the book History of Sartell, Minnesota Lumber, Paper, Valves, and Progress A Century of Progress, Welcoming a Century of Promise pages 137-138

Ice Making in Sartell

Jack McCann, 85, remembers when at age four he watched workers harvesting ice on the Mississippi river above the Sartell dam. Jack's grandfather, Archie Paul McCann, and his partner, Juilius Wesler, ran two ice businesses from 1935-1943.

Before the advent of electricity, using blocks of ice harvested from local rivers and lakes was the only way people could preserve meat and other products. In Sartell, the Mississippi River was their major source of ice. St. Cloud citizens drew their ice from Lake George.

The process of harvesting ice was carried out during Minnesota's bitter winter weather, Icemen waited until the ice was 16" to 22" thick before removing surface snow and marking off long strips of ice using a cutter. Long-toothed saws=sometimes operated by machines- and other tools of the trade were used to cut the ice strips into large blocks.

A farmer could make $5.00 a day hauling five or six wagonloads of ice to area icehouses. It was not unusual to stack ice 25 tiers high.

To keep ice from melting during warm weather, dry sawdust collected from the Sartell paper mill and local sawmills was thickly packed around the ice, a process that provided year-round protection.

The iceman and his horse-drawn wagon was a common figure on America's street and alleys from the early 19th century to post World War II. Drivers served homes, stores, and saloons. Customers would set a cardboard sign-marked 25, 50, 75, and 100 - in their windows to inform the driver of the amount of ice needed that day. A 500-pound block cost $2.75.

A St. Cloud author wrote: "Children followed the iceman down the alley. Every time he chipped an order from a larger clock, he would make slivers of ice. On a hot June day, there was nothing cooler than an ice chip fresh off the wagon, clear as a bell, and melting down your arms."

Since tools and methods of ice harvesting were unique, it is not surprising that builders chose unorthodox forms when designing icehouses. The McCann-Wesler Icehouse resembles a building with its structural members exposed to the elements. In Paynesville, Minnesota, the 1910 North American Cold Storage building was a massive brick structure with castle-like ornamentation. A four story white-brick icehouse, built in 1920 in East St. Cloud, was renovated in 1982 and used to house 25 apartments. At the time, efforts were made to nominate the icehouse to the National Register of Historic Places.

In a 1944 article, "Putting Up Ice" a St. Cloud Times reporter lamented the end of the ice harvesting era: "Boys lived to put up ice because of the thought always of it when the hot days came. It not only went into the milk tank and refrigerator, if there was one on the farm, but it was one thing that was absolutely needed to make a gallon freezer of ice cream for a hot Sunday or holiday next summer."

Logging, piloting a steamboat, and other river activities have produced a large body of American Folk Literature. Ice-Harvesting and the men who carried out that trade could add a fascinating chapter to this national narrative."

Where Rivers Merge Stories from the History of Sartell, Minnesota William Towner Morgan pages 32-33