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On the Rocks in Crystal Lake

Did you know that by 1897, up to 200 men could cut 80,000 cubic feet of ice from Crystal Lake in a single day?


“No Danger of Shortage in Ice Here This Year,” read the Christmas Day 1919 headline in The Crystal Lake Herald. The previous summer’s ice situation had been “exceedingly difficult,” the “Herald” noted. “[A]nd productive of no small amount of annoyance to the long suffering housewife, whose ice box has been so nearly empty half the time … that quantities of good food spoiled through lack of properly-cool refrigeration.”

Yet an early, cold winter had provided for a “splendid crop.” The lake had frozen to a depth of 14 inches, and the Pfeiffer Brothers ice company cut and stored enough ice to serve the local community, “and two more towns,” through the coming summer. By late January, icehouses were full to overflowing; the company had hired 12 additional men and four extra teams of horses for the harvest. They boasted of the quality of their ice—“so clear that a newspaper could be read through its crystal depth.” The local ice-cutting industry was nearing its final crescendo, however, and most of its best years had already come and gone.

Ice was king in Crystal Lake for roughly seven decades. Indeed, owing to the prospect of a rich winter harvest, from the mid-1850s through the early 1920s, local ice purveyors and laborers alike welcomed the frigid days of January and February—the more bitterly cold, the better. The arrival of the Chicago and North Western Railway in 1855 facilitated shipping to the big city market. And the following year, Amos Page, owner of the Crystal Lake Ice Company, laid a railroad track from the lake’s edge to the downtown train depot—a spur line running along present-day Dole Avenue.

For the next 65 years, a succession of business ventures cut profits (quite literally) from the frozen lake. These included The Knickerbocker Ice Co., The Chicago Ice Co., and The Consumer Co., among many smaller operations. By the 1910s, more than a dozen icehouses, large and small, lined Crystal Lake’s shores. The largest had a storage capacity of 24,000 tons. Ironically, fire was the number one plague of the local ice-harvesting industry, and over the years, several icehouses burned down, causing major setbacks to an entire season’s crop. Nevertheless, the local ice harvesting industry thrived through the 1910s, until the advent of electrical refrigeration made it obsolete.

The Ice Makers

Once the lake was frozen to a sufficient depth of at least 10 inches, teams of men and horses went to work. Their first task was to clear snow off the lake. Using a steel plow—the same used in the summer fields—the snow was pushed and piled off to the banks, similar to how a large parking lot is cleared today.

Next, the ice was divided into 22-by-22 inch squares called “cakes.” This was accomplished by marking off a set of lines, spaced 22 inches apart, across the entire surface width of the lake, and then a second set running perpendicular across its length. These marks were then cut to a depth of about two-thirds (so, the 14-inch-deep ice of 1919 was cut 9 or 10 inches deep) and the furrows packed with snow to prevent melting and remerging of the cakes. Finally, men used large saws to cut through to the frigid water and fashion “rafts” two cakes wide by 10 cakes deep.

The ice rafts were floated to the icehouse down a pre-cut channel of water. There, the 20 cakes per raft were split free and lifted up ramps, or “runways,” by pulley into the icehouse. Men used ice picks to stack the ice, bedding each cake in layers of hay and sawdust for insulation. On a record day in 1891, a total of 35,000 ice cakes were cut and stored this way by 135 workmen.

Ice was a year-round enterprise. Winter was for cutting and summer for shipping. Come the warmer months, thousands of tons were shipped by rail to Chicago. Locally, throughout the summer, the “ice man” made routine visits to household after household—just like the milkman. Residents placed a card in their window announcing how much was needed, and the man used an ice pick to carry blocks of ice from his truck to family ice boxes all across town. And, so it was that perishable goods stayed fresh before the age of electric refrigeration.

The Ice Man Goeth

In 1919, anticipating mild winters and ice shortages, the Pfieffer Brothers announced plans to erect an artificial ice plant in Crystal Lake. This new plant would produce 10 tons of ice per day. Their planning proved prescient, if not immediately, since that year’s harvest itself was excellent. Nevertheless, by the mid-1920s, ice-machines and electrical refrigeration had prevailed.

Demand from Chicago for our “crystal clear” ice had dwindled by 1924. That year, the spur line leading from the lake to Crystal Lake Avenue was removed; 5,100 feet of track, once deeded as a right-of-way to the Crystal Lake Ice Company, served no further purpose. A crew of 130 men completed the task in 12 hours on a Sunday afternoon. By 1928, reports indicated that the entire winter’s harvest totaled 5,000 tons, a mere fraction of winters past. And in 1940, supply was confined to small, local operators who delivered mostly artificial ice to local residents. Only a few truckloads per day, by that time, were still harvested on the lake during the bitter winter cold.

“Removal of Old Ice Pilings is Reminder of Past,” the April 29, 1954, headline in “The Crystal Lake Herald” read. “This work reminds older residents of the early days when ice cutting was a major industry…The old pilings, on which the huge icehouses were built, are the last remnants of a once flourishing business.”

Today, where we see a small village of ice fishing huts, cheerful ice skaters and the occasional hockey game, remember that this winter playground we so much enjoy once provided the means for keeping summertime cool.

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