Ice is the solid form of water, an amazing substance long known and used for its cooling capacity. Its importance was most particularly seen in the preservation of perishable foodstuffs.
Until fairly recent times, ice used for such cooling was cut in large blocks from rivers, lakes and ponds across the northern United States. This winter activity took place in Stevens Point as a matter of necessity. The January 25th, 1882 Portage County Gazette reported that Andrew Lutz, Adam Kuhl and others were harvesting ice on the Wisconsin River.
The Wisconsin Pinery noted the next year that the ice harvested in late January was two feet thick and “clear as crystal.” A fortnight later, the Pinery reported that the ice passing through the streets was “not of the best quality.” This ice was taken to ice houses throughout Stevens Point where it was packed in sawdust and kept until warm weather when it was sold. Throughout the “ice season,” to householders and commercial users.
A common sight in the years gone by was the iceman and his wagon (later his truck), making deliveries of blocks ice to his subscription customers. A sign was issued to each subscriber; was a two - sided placard indicating ice was needed or not. If ice was required, the iceman would cut a block of the required size with an ice pick, attach tongs to the block with a mighty stroke, and hoist the block onto his shoulder. Icemen were strong (Jim Thorpe, the great Indian football star was an iceman one summer), for they had to carry an average of fifty to one hundred fifty pounds of ice from the wagon to the icebox at each stop.
The “ice season” ran from April to October in most years. Before the weather had warmed enough, and after it had cooled enough, a box-type device was usually fitted in a kitchen window. This box, cooled by the outside air, provided a place to safely store perishable foodstuffs. Because the box was closed to the outside, it prevented freezing of the contents most of the time. When the weather was too warm for this device, the iceman was summoned to bring ice, which was placed inside an insulated cabinet to cool the foodstuffs.
Commercial use of ice was also important. In Stevens Point, and elsewhere in the United States, brewers used ice to keep their aging cellars at between 32 and 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Other industries that required cold storage of materials also used ice.
About the turn of the century, refrigeration engineers developed a high-pressure ammonia refrigeration system for ice cream cabinets. This proved not only impractical but dangerous. The ammonia lines, under great pressure, tended to rupture or to explode (the ammonia gas used was very inflammable). In a few years, low pressure ammonia systems reduced the danger, and the commercial use of artificial refrigeration began.
The development of mechanical refrigeration took two directions. One was toward Improved commercial refrigeration. The other was the development of the residential refrigerator and freezer. (This latter development, however, took time. Household refrigerators (mechanical) were uncommon even in the l940’s. During the 1920’s and 1930’s much of the ice harvested by such companies as Reading and Neumann of Stevens Point was sold to householders.) Both directions cut into the ice business. Improved commercial refrigeration led to the artificial freezing of ice (an adjunct to the ice business), frozen foods, more general production of ice cream and other industries using refrigeration.
Home or residential refrigerators and freezers led to the development of new industries (frozen foods and food products), home frozen foods, and the term storage of perishable product also led to the environmental problem of disposal of worn out refrigerators and freezers.
In recent years, the cutting of ice and its storage in sawdust has been a minor activity. Some railroads still use cut ice as a coolant for refrigerator cars and every once in a while a city may use such ice to recall its traditions. As late as 1973 the Casey Distributing Company in Stevens Point still cut ice from McDill Pond for sale to the Soo Line Railroad and to the University for Winter Carnival activities. At the time Casey was one of the few companies in the nation still harvesting ice. Casey ceased its operations in Point within a year or two thereafter.
The more popular needs for ice--cooling beverages and watermelons at picnics, cooling truckloads of fresh vegetables or extra ice cubes for parties -- are today met by mechanical ice plants that manufacture and distribute thousands of tons of ice each year.