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Ice harvesting

Ron Davidson • Jan 20, 2014 at 3:00 PM

With the cold winter we have had this year, there is no shortage of ice on the bay and on the lake. Many people today see that ice as a minor annoyance, or even a nuisance, since it tends to make life a bit uncomfortable and means that Spring often comes later around here. Others treat the ice with indifference, as just an unavoidable part of life. But Sanduskians of the past saw that ice in a different light: as a treasure – because it was a valuable resource for people before the days of refrigeration. 


As you might have learned in school, the location of early cities was usually based on geography, and Sandusky was no exception. With its convenient location on the shallow western side of Lake Erie, sheltered within Sandusky Bay, and resting on solid bedrock, Sandusky’s founders knew they had a prime site for a settlement. And with this shallow lake and bay, combined with cold winters, the region was a prime source for natural ice, an important material for life in the nineteenth century. Before refrigeration, natural ice helped to preserve food and other perishables, and sometimes even offered a bit of “air conditioning.” It did not take long for Sandusky to become one of the most important sources for ice in the Midwest. 


With the growth of railroad lines going through Sandusky by the late 1800s, ice harvesting and shipping became an increasingly larger industry, as much of the harvested ice was shipped to inland cities throughout the Midwest. The 1867 city directory listed three ice dealers in town; by 1888, we had fourteen ice merchants listed in Sandusky, but there probably were many other firms doing the same business without a listing. The 1888 book, Sandusky of To-Day, reported more than twenty ice companies in Sandusky, with around 225,000 tons of capacity in local ice houses. There were dozens of ice houses along the shoreline in town, with the highest concentration on the east side, along First Street. These buildings were large windowless sheds, thickly-insulated (usually with straw or sawdust placed between double walls), and right along the shore, for ease of loading. The ice was carved on the bay, then moved by men with pikes through a channel cut into the ice directly to a conveyor belt (usually steam-powered, but sometimes animal-powered) that hauled the ice into the building for men to pack inside. Even with insulation and tight packing, it was inevitable that a large percentage of the ice melted before it even left the ice houses.


Of the small percentage of harvested ice that stayed in Sandusky, an even smaller percentage was earmarked for household use, usually in kitchen iceboxes. Some of you might remember having an icebox (not a refrigerator) in your childhood, or heard about parents or grandparents who did. The household refrigerator was invented in 1913, and it remained primitive and expensive well into the twentieth century, so iceboxes remained popular for many years.


The majority of ice that was harvested in Sandusky Bay and not shipped out of town was reserved for commercial use, mostly for the many fisheries in town. Freshly-caught fish would be packed in ice harvested the previous winter, and often shipped well beyond the local region. Fish preserved in ice must have offered a tastier and healthier alternative to fish preserved in salt. Most of these fisheries had their own ice houses, and the summer fishermen became winter ice harvesters. The last remaining ice house in Sandusky, razed in 1956, was built by the Booth Fisheries at the foot of Jackson Street.

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