Today refrigerators are electric and have ice dispensers in the door, a TV screen, and a touch screen to tell you what groceries you have, the ice box is almost forgotten. In this day of a ready supply of ice in all sizes and shapes it may be hard for many people to comprehend how important a good “ice harvest” was to people living in Geary County over 100 years ago.
A good ice harvest depended on whether the river froze solid from bank to bank. This usually happened in January and assured that during the slower winter months there was plenty of work to keep men and boys busy.
Here’s one account of a good harvest: “Times are lively on the river and there is no excuse for those who are willing to work to complain of hard times and nothing to do. To see 200 men at work, all bundled up, tugging away at huge blocks of ice is indeed a novel sight. The river is now frozen solid from bank to bank and the ice is considered by the knowing ones to be far superior to any that has even been taken out of the river at this point,” (newspaper article Jan. 1883).
When the ice was ready, the harvesters had to work fast. The procedure used to harvest ice was described in an early 1900s journal, “the ice plow, drawn by horses and driven by a man riding on it, or propelled by steam . . . cut deep parallel grooves at right angles, so that the whole surface is marked out in squares measuring a little more than three feet. A few of these square blocks are then detached by handsaws, the remainder are easily broken off with crow bars, and floated away to the ice storehouse.”
There were several storehouses in Junction City, but one of the best remembered is still standing at the east end of Spruce Street and was owned by Axel Swenson, a feisty Swedish immigrant. Keith Hemenway recalled that the ice was stored in sawdust and packed snuggly in the two-story stone building.
In an ad in the Union of March 3, 1888, Swenson announced that he had purchased the James Potter Ice House and stock and this, in addition to the quantity he had already put up, enabled him to supply parties through the season at prices ranging from $1.50 per month for 15 pounds delivered daily, to 30 cents per 100 pound blocks.
By 1899, the newspapers were noting changes were taking place in the ice business. “It used to be that half a dozen ice wagons were required to cover the city and the men worked from 3 o’clock in the morning until late at night. Now the ice man goes to the cold storage plant at 6 in the morning and two wagons and a Ford ‘hurry-up’ wagon does all the work in the city, and the amount of ice handled is more than ever before.” (JCU May 24, 1899).
Junction City’s first ice manufacturing plant was built in 1901 by the Ice, Light, and Railway Company. The plant offered clean, pure, ice available year round from the loading dock. However, the ice delivery man was still a regular visitor to area kitchens and the ice card in the front window indicating how many pounds were needed was still a common site. World War II brought electric refrigerators and soon the visits from the iceman became only fond memories recounted for a new generation.
When the iceman was making his delivery, “he would draw his icepick from the leather holster her wore on his belt and start making little stabs up the face of the big ice. When the smaller blocks split off, it might need to be trimmed, that was the point the onlookers went crazy—would it be a big chunk or smaller chips that he’d pass around? Then he’d throw a piece of leather, dry side down, over his shoulder, put his shoulder under the suspended block of ice and take the handles of the tongs off the hook. With the block suspended and with water trickling down the leather, he led the way to the kitchen.”
When you’re crossing the rivers that surround Junction City this winter try to imagine a host of men out on the ice cutting blocks to keep your food cool and drinks cold come summer.