Mark J. Price
When the wind howled and the temperature plunged, farmers waited patiently for their crops to freeze.
Frosty tendrils inched across the surface, creating a delicate lattice that broadened and thickened. Within a few weeks under the right conditions, a vast bounty stretched as far as the eye could see.
Workers bundled up, grabbed gear, hitched plows and began a bitter harvest.
We take ice for granted today, but more than a century ago, it was a precious commodity that was collected in winter and delivered in summer.
In the late 19th century, ice farmers harvested frozen blocks from ponds and lakes across Northeast Ohio. It was slippery, dangerous work and always a race against time. A prolonged thaw could ruin a crop and lead to shortages that wreaked havoc in later months.
In the 1870s when Akron’s population was a mere 10,000, Wallace S. Saxton had a monopoly on the ice business. Promising “a superior class of ice” as clear as crystal, he won an exclusive contract to reap Summit Lake and White Pond.
Each winter, he employed 40 men who harvested more than 300 tons of ice per day. They marked off lines on the ice, sawed out blocks and glided them toward teams of horses.
Saxton’s icehouses held a capacity of 5,000 tons of frozen cakes for use at summer.
“He has three houses to fill, any one of which would seem sufficiently large to furnish all the city for nearly, if not quite, a whole season; and yet beside this he intends to lay in a further supply at Summit Lake by simply standing it on the ground and covering it with sawdust and straw,” the Beacon Journal reported in 1872.
He should have stored more. By September, Akron’s iceboxes were nearly empty.
Saxton ordered more blocks to arrive by train, but they melted in a humid boxcar.
“To those of my customers who did not receive ice today, I wish to say that it is not any fault of mine,” Saxton wrote in a public notice. “My supply being gone, I have to depend on a supply from Sandusky.
“I received one car today, but it being on the road over Sunday, it was nearly all wasted, and was not enough to reach around, therefore I was obliged to disappoint nearly half of my customers. I have ordered two carloads per day for future supply, and sincerely hope that there will be sufficient for all.”
It probably wasn’t a big surprise when the city didn’t renew Saxton’s contract.
In the 1880s, German immigrant Henry Klages won the exclusive right to harvest the ice on Blue Pond in East Akron. Klages Coal and Ice Co. eventually took over the cutting at Summit Lake and the Ohio & Erie Canal, packing more than 5,000 tons a year.
From Cottage Grove to Crystal Lake to Black Pond, the ice rush continued. Other major harvesters of the era were Renner’s Crystal Ice, Kempel & Horst, Inman Bros., Jacob Brodt and Burkhardt Brewing.
One of the local legends in the field was Portage County native Henry Louis Spelman (1852-1935), who operated icehouses at Silver Lake, Brady Lake and Congress Lake.
“To make this business a success, the first and most essential thing is ‘location,’ ” Spelman said. “Study this question carefully before building an icehouse. Be sure you have good, pure water to harvest your ice from. Build by a railroad that will furnish refrigerator cars for ice shipment.”
Spelman revealed the secrets of his trade in a 1908 treatise titled The Harvesting and Sale of Natural Ice. He advocated purchasing “good machinery,” including an “endless chain conveyor” at the icehouse, and using “the best tools you can get and plenty of them.”
A force of 125 workers could harvest 25,000 to 30,000 blocks, or two acres, per day if weather conditions were favorable, Spelman wrote.
“When ice is 8 inches to 10 inches thick, hire more men than you need and commence your ice harvest,” he noted. “Commence by cutting a channel about 8 inches wide from elevator to ice field which you wish to harvest first. This should be quite a distance from the icehouse.
“First, draw a line and mark out a straight channel; follow this line with horses and marker; follow the line with 8-, 10- and 12-inch plows in succession, cutting nearly through the ice; follow the plows with saws, cutting this 8-foot strip off on both sides; cut the strip into pieces, and put them under the other ice. This opens a channel very easily and rapidly.”
Spelman’s team chopped 22- by-22-inch blocks and floated them toward an elevator that stocked the icehouse. Workers planed each block and stacked the cakes atop a 2-foot bed of wild hay or straw. When blocks neared the ceiling, crews covered them with another foot of straw for insulation.
The ice stayed in cold storage until warm weather returned to Ohio. Then horse-drawn wagons delivered the blocks to businesses and homes.
Akron’s record crop was in February 1895, when the ice reached a thickness of nearly 24 inches on ponds and lakes. Icehouses were filled to capacity with what the Beacon Journal hailed as “the finest cakes ever packed in the city.”
Such harvests were never guaranteed, however.
Klages tilted the odds in his favor when he built an artificial ice plant at Bluff and Summit streets in 1891. Using new technology, he condensed, heated and filtered water, then poured it into canisters that were submerged in a salt brine and chilled with ammonia.
Artificial ice could be made all year and didn’t depend on the whims of nature. Furthermore, it was a lot cleaner.
As Akron’s population rose, the city’s ponds and lakes became polluted with industrial waste and raw sewage.
Dr. Armin Sicherman, an Akron physician, became a leading opponent of “natural ice,” insisting that it presented a grave danger to public health.
“Here is a body of water exposed to contamination from the air,” he explained in 1905. “There are always germs of infectious disease floating about in the air and these are communicated to the water, to mention the more direct and positive contamination from sewage and surface drainage.
“The water freezes and the germs are in the water. The freezing does not kill the germs for they are very resistant to cold and they remain in the ice until liberated by its melting when placed in water, or milk, or in contact with food taken into the system.
“Upon the other hand, artificial ice being produced from distilled water, which is practically sterile, there can be no contamination.”
More and more ice dealers switched to artificial ice. A few continued the old ways.
Spelman’s farmers worked at Silver Lake into the early 1920s, collecting 17,000 cakes a month and stripping the ice in three weeks.
Gradually, public demand melted as modern refrigeration and ice-making technology made the ice harvest obsolete.
Today, we can push a button and ice will tumble into a glass.
It’s a lot more convenient than going outside to chop up a pond.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book to be published in March by the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.