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The ice business in Wadena

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Wadena,Minnesota 56482
Wadena PJ
(218) 631-1621 customer support
The ice business in Wadena
Wadena Minnesota 314 S. Jefferson 56482

I got to thinking about the ice man when I was a kid and realized that people under the age of 60 don't have much idea of refrigeration used before 1940.


When I think of ice, I, of course, think of ice boxes in the early days. However, the big users of ice in the late 1890s and early 1900s were the saloons and the brewery. The Wadena Brewery was the first business that put up ice from their brewery pond. I presume their ice house for storage was at or near the brewery.

Many farmers put up their own ice from the rivers of the area.

The process of putting up ice was a labor-intensive process and done during the months of January and February.

The process was dependent on the weather and I believe that some years they were not able to put up any ice because of too-warm weather. However, with the weather agreeable it went as follows.

The ice would be measured for depth with about 16 to 20 inches, the optimum depth. They would plane the ice to a depth of 2-3 inches to remove poor top ice. They would mark the pond out in a grid with squares of 22-32 inches the average. After this was marked, they would come in with a plow and cut the grooves to within a few inches of the bottom of the ice. This was done with horses equipped with special shoes to prevent slipping. Stories are told of horses and plows breaking through or slipping on the ice and having to be pulled out. Also, horses being horses, they employed boys with brooms to clean up after them before the mess froze. After this was done they would use a bar to separate a section of several squares and float it down a channel to an area where the ice was loaded and transported to the ice house. In bigger operations they had an elevator arrangement to move the ice into the storage house, but I assume that they used a block and tackle to accomplish this. Their biggest problem was keeping the channel open at night for the next day's work.

The ice house was constructed of the cheapest lumber available with an inner wall to create an air space. Usually saw dust was the insulating material. A layer of 6-8 inches was laid first, and then layers of ice blocks with saw dust between blocks and covered on top. One of the problems was when moisture developed as this would freeze the blocks together causing one gigantic ice mass. The houses were normally painted white to reflect the sun's rays.

They say that you would have to figure on a shrinkage of 10 to 25 percent even in a well-constructed ice house. But normally, with an average harvest, the ice would last through the next season.

I believe that the ice put up by the Wadena Brewery was from their pond on Union Creek, the parking lot of the old Homecrest Furniture plant, now the home of Hunke Transfer.

The Brewery sold ice to a man by the name of Fred Siring who took care of deliveries to the numerous saloons and to families. In September 1900, the newspaper mentions a serious ice shortage in Wadena. Siring even contacted the Northern Pacific Railroad to secure more ice but had no success. The Brewery's first concern was the saloons rather than individual patrons.

I don't recall early ice men. My memory only goes back to Alden West and Harvey Gumtow. Alden lived at 321 Colfax Ave. SE and his ice house was right across the street. I remember it as a large two-story building.

These two men took over the ice business from Chester Johnson in 1923. Of course, the brewery was long out of business and they did put up their own ice.

Their pond was the same pond operated by the brewery in earlier days but as mentioned above they had a different ice house.

As a boy we lived at 421 Second Street SE, present day Immanuel parking lot. I recall how Harvey Gumtow would come up the alley in his open flat bed truck, delivering ice. We would gather around hoping that Harvey would chip us off some ice on a hot day. I recall that he seemed to have 100 pound blocks of ice and if the customer wanted 25 pounds, he would saw the block part way through and then finish the job with an ice pick. Then he would gather the ice dust and throw it at us. All ice customers had a card, about 16 inches square with red, white, yellow and green sides marked with 25, 50, 75 and 100. The housewife would put the card in the window facing the alley with the appropriate number turned up to let Harvey know how much ice to bring. The standard ice box was about 30 inches wide and 4 feet tall. It had two compartments, the upper, smaller one held the ice the lower for food storage. It worked better than no ice box but was not a deep freeze. The big problem was remembering to empty the drain pan and many people arranged for drainage to the outside rather than forgetting to empty the pan.

I consulted with my old friend Roger Folkestad who lived across the alley from us and we agreed that probably the ice man came twice a week but neither of us had any idea of what charge was made. If any readers can add to this, please do so. We thought that they had two trucks. I am sure that Alden West delivered with the other truck but must have been on the other side of town.

We had the ice box until my dad built a new home on Jefferson South and we got an electric refrigerator. What a wonderful device with a very small freezer compartment and ice cubes. We were really living.

Another memory is that we would, on special days, take our one-quart ice cream freezer, chip ice from the block in the ice box and pack it in the freezer and make home made ice cream. It was wonderful to eat but it was a long, boring job cranking the freezer.

For folks that didn't have ice boxes they would keep food in the cellar which usually had a temperature of about 50 degrees or as many homes had their own wells food could be dropped into them to be kept cool. This of course involved almost daily trips to the grocery store and meat market.

In 1943, Alden West went out of the ice business. The reason he gave being that because of the war he couldn't get help to harvest the ice.

Commercial ice making and commercial refrigeration had come into being back in 1907 with the start of the Monarch Ice Cream Company but didn't develop for home use until much later.

But that is another story.