The icemen

Ice cutters
Image from the collection of the Hennepin History Museum

Surely, many of us have put leftovers outside in the winter. What better way to cool a big pot of soup that to leave it on the porch in January?

Before refrigeration, ice was delivered in 25-pound blocks to your icebox. As it melted, you dumped out the drip pan. The iceman delivered fresh cakes of ice daily in the summer.

For decades, that ice came out of Minneapolis lakes. Icemen watched as the lake froze, which often was by the first week in December. Once the ice reached a depth of 15 or 16 inches, the snow was scraped away. Blocks of ice weighing more than 100 pounds were sawed loose with a handsaw or, later, a power saw.

These three men are standing on freshly cut ice cakes. They would pry up each block, which was then hauled by horse to the shore. Conveyors brought the blocks into the icehouse, where they were stacked to await the summertime demand. The ice was covered in sawdust and straw to insulate it from melting as the warm weather came on.

These workers are on Cedar Lake. Just as today’s swimmers know that Cedar is the clearest city lake for swimming, icemen preferred Cedar for a clear, clean product. Later, they expanded to Bde Maka Ska, which they insisted was palatable long after the neighborhood decided the water wasn’t pure enough to drink. Some thought that freezing removed impurities, but of course it didn’t then and doesn’t now.

Before 1910, the ice companies had relinquished the Bde Maka Ska shore to the Minneapolis Park Board. The ice businesses removed to Shady Oak Lake in Hopkins and other lakes further from the city.

The demand for ice to preserve food and for summertime cold drinks was as so great that as much as 300,000 tons of ice were harvested in a single winter. The industry collapsed in response to the invention of the humble refrigerator. But as late as 1964 there were still hundreds of households in Minneapolis that used an icebox, not a refrigerator, to keep food cold.

Karen Cooper is a researcher in lost industries and environmental change at Hennepin History Museum. The museum’s current exhibits include “Owning Up,” a history of racial profiling and redlining in Minneapolis neighborhoods.  More info at or 870-1329.