Volume IV, No. 3, Spring 1977


by Darrell Pollock

Drawings by Kyra Gibson and Mark Elam

One would think that the last thing on anyone's mind on a below zero day in the Ozarks in early 1900 would be how to keep cool during the next summer. But just as we today are planning how we can store summer sunlight for winter warmth, so did some energetic people figure out how to harvest the winter cold for next summer's comfort. Simply harvest the ice and store it for summer.

The process really was simple. All it required was an ax, a crosscut saw, a team and wagon which everyone had, ice tongs which the blacksmith could make, a pond or river close by, a shed or temporary building, sawdust from the numerous saw mills and--here's the catch--lots of heavy labor during the coldest weather of the year.

Most people stayed close to their fires, but a few braved the weather to cut, haul and store ice. Some people like Dick Luthy's family cut ice as a business and sold it during the summers to townspeople and businesses. Some people like Ernie Hough's family cut ice for their own use. Some like the people in the McBride community in the 1920's cut and stored ice for the use of the entire community. And most others did without ice during the hot summers.

In the early 1900's Dick Luthy's family was the first to cut and sell ice in their area, although some people in other places sold ice earlier. Their ice house looked like an old barn, large, but completely open inside with no partitions. The house was made of oak lumber with the sidings cut thicker than boards in ordinary buildings. Since the ice was stacked with all the weight on the dirt floor of the building, there was no side pressure, but the walls had to be thick to help insulate the ice.

The Luthy family cut ice off an acre pond near their ice house. "That pond was dug when clay was taken from there to make bricks for a house being built," Dick said. "That old pond water wouldn't be fit to put in drinks to cool. But, you could use it for ice boxes and other things." They used the pond because it was convenient. The river was too far away to haul ice from nor would the moving river water freeze as quickly as the pond.

This sandstone ice house has a drive for easy loading.


Dick and his six brothers cut the ice when it was around zero degree weather and ice had built up to about eight to ten inches thick. They would work until the house was filled, usually about a week. "Sometimes we had a little hurrying to do if it would warm up before we got the ice house filled," Dick chuckled.

To start cutting they chopped a hole in the ice with an ax and then used a coarse toothed crosscut saw to saw the blocks. Each block was about three by five feet and weighed about a hundred pounds. They started cutting in the middle of the pond and worked their way back to the banks, sawing as far back to the banks as the saw would cut without hitting the ground and getting as much ice as they could without getting wet.

"When that ice was cut in a cake, it was just a-floating in there. You would have to throw a spear and hit one side of that cake of ice. You'd hit one side and you'd tip it up so you could grab the cake with a hook. The end of the spear had a hook on the one side of it and a sharp point on the other side. When my brother'd tip the ice up, he'd catch it and jerk it up on top of the uncut ice on the pond, see? You had to be careful doing that, though. I remember my brother once hit a cake of ice with his gig just to tip the ice up so that he could jerk it up on top. But the gig slipped and he went into the pond. It was down below zero and I thought he would freeze."

Floor plan of above ice house

Once cut, the ice was carried with ice tongs to a horse-drawn wagon equipped with an end gate and sixteen inch side racks where it was stacked like bales of hay are stacked today. It took two men with ice tongs--one on each end--to load a hundred pounds in the wagon. Each wagon load of ice weighed about two tons. The ice was then hauled to the ice house where about twelve inches of sawdust was already spread on the floor.

At the ice house, the ice was stacked one cake on top of another, eighteen inches from the wall. "We'd build it up just like you was building up brick or stone," Dick said. Then they filled all the space between the walls and the ice with sawdust and covered the top with sawdust to keep the air from getting to the ice. They got their sawdust from local sawmills they paid to hold the sawdust for them.

Cross section of a temporary rail pen ice house. Temporary ice houses were made of rails and straw. As blocks of ice were stacked the pen was built around them. Sawdust filled all the spaces to keep out the air. Straw on top shed the rain.


To get the ice ready to sell, they swept the sawdust off with a broom and used a little water to clean it. They then sold it to businesses in twon and to many residents. Their customers would buy twenty-five to fifty pounds at a time. The price of the ice ran about five cents a pound, or a big chunk for a quarter. Dick made rounds twice a week in summer in a wagon without insulation. "We just had to let it melt. It didn't melt so fast because we wouldn't take enough out at a time to be gone long enough for it to melt too much. We just had to do the best we could those days," Dick added, "You couldn't make a living off of ice alone, though. We also had a farm and ran a dairy."

Ernie Hough's family cut ice for their own use in the early 1900's. "We never sold ice," Ernie said. "We'd give it to people sometimes.'' Ernie didn't have an ice house, but used what he called a "rail pen." It was a temporary building built of rails much like a log building, with straw stuffed in the spaces between the rails to keep the sawdust from falling out. They built up the pen around the ice as it was stacked. The rail pen had no door nor roof. They simply crawled in from the top to get the ice. The size of the pen depended on the amount of ice cut. The pen might be eight to ten feet square and "as high as you wanted it."

Since Ernie lived on the river, he cut ice off a big, still eddy on the river. "Ice from a pond wasn't fit to use. But the ice from the river, it would wash off so nice and clear we put it in our lemonade. We made ice cream with it, too. I can remember when we drank water out of the creeks and rivers. I guess you wouldn't want to do that now. But then it was clean. We didn't have polluted rivers like we do today."

Usually the river would freeze enough to cut ice at least once each winter. Sometimes the Houghs could get enough ice to last all summer and sometimes they got enough to last just half the summer. It depended on how much the river froze.

Like the Luthys, the Houghs used an ax and crosscut saw with one handle off to cut the ice. They cut ice when it was about a foot thick. They'd saw off a long strip, about what they could handle, then they cut it in blocks. They handled the blocks with ice tongs to load on the wagon. They would cut what ice they could before it got dangerous. Where they cut the water wasn't very deep.

Ernie also used sawdust to insulate the ice since his family also had a sawmill and sawdust was handy. They put sawdust on the ground and then stacked the ice, leaving a space between the wall of the pen and the ice to be filled with sawdust. It took about a foot of sawdust to prevent air from getting to the ice. As long as the air doesn't get to the ice, it won't melt. To complete the temporary ice house, they covered the top of the ice with sawdust and then spread layers of straw to shed the rain.

When the ice had all been used, they took down the rail pen and cleaned up the spot until the next ice harvest.

Sometimes, the men in a rural area like the McBride community would work together to cut ice for the whole community. One year the ice would be stored in someone's granary, and another year in someone else's shed. The whole community was welcome to use the ice as long as it lasted. Myrtle Hough remembers, "We used it mostly to cool water and for ice cream. Usually the neighborhood would make ice cream out of it. If someone was sick, why, we'd always take ice cream to them."

A few women had ice boxes in their kitchens. "That icebox was the first convenience we had," Annie Fike told us. "And that wasn't very convenient because we couldn't put a very big pan under the ice to catch the water when it melted. We had to empty that pan about twice a day. The box'd hold a hundred pounds of  ice and by putting paper over the cake of ice and not opening the door any more than we had to, we could have cream pies and cold milk. That ice would last most all week. Almost every Saturday we'd put a new cake of ice in."

Cross section of shed turned community Ice house. Sawdust helps insulation.


Cutting ice, whether done as a community, a family, or a business was hard work. Ernie told us, "Not too many people cut ice too much anytime. They could have, but they didn't. They just did without ice." As soon as plants began manufacturing ice, people like Dick Luthy quilt cutting ice. "People could get clean ice then, not like that ice cut off the pond. Besides, cutting ice was quite a bit of work," Dick remembered. "But, that's all us people did in them days was work."

Two types of ice tongs commonly used to handle ice. The hand wrought type (extreme left) was fashioned by the local blacksmith while the pair at the right was available from mail order catalogs.

Front view of a sandstone ice house, one of the more permanent ones we found. Notice how thick the walls are for better insulation from the heat of summer.

When it was 0° or colder, some Ozark men harnessed their teams, got a crosscut saw and an ax and headed for the frozen river to harvest ice to help cool the 90° heat of July and August.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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