By Derek Smith
The harvesting of trees was one of the largest Michigan industries back in the mid-1800s and early 1900s.
St Clair County and its surrounding area were home to more than a dozen lumber harvesters and the many sawmills that serviced them. Several local millionaires made their fortunes from the lumbering of white pine forests that grew so abundantly in the Port Huron area.
Another industry that flourished in the 1800s and on into the early 1900s was the harvesting of ice. I stumbled onto this story quite by accident.
Advertisements - Click the Speaker Icon for Audio
I had been focusing some recent research on the history of Sherman Woods and the surrounding beachfront when I happened upon a property dispute.
The main character in this historical hatching is an ice house being built by I E McCollum & Company, on land leased from John M Hoffman.
The year was 1900.
I E McCollum and Company was erecting five ice houses on land located in the northeast corner of La Salle Park at the end of Holland Avenue.
These five ice houses were to be 200 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 30 to 40 feet high. They were built separately but could also be joined into one large building.
The ice houses would be capable of storing between 10000 and 12000 tons of ice when at capacity.
The eastern walls, however, were very close to the lakeshore and one would think that there could be some damage to those surfaces during the many nor’easters that Lake Huron delivers.
AI E Chadwick, a local attorney, objected to this construction on behalf of Mrs. Knill, the owner of La Salle Beach. The ice houses would completely block the view of Lake Huron from the Knill cottage, now owned by Fred Dixon, one of the developers of Sherman Woods. The cottage stood almost directly behind the McCollom ice house.
An injunction was granted by the Port Huron Circuit Court to temporarily stop the building of the ice houses.
Work was suspended for 10 days, with the three south structures almost finished and the two north units about ten feet into the air.
To put all this in a nutshell, much to the chagrin of the cottagers, after several reviews of land surveys, historical litigation, engineering reports, etc. it was determined that Hoffman was the legal owner of the lakefront land along the Old Lakeshore Road and that the completion of the five ice houses could proceed.
Back in the early 1900s, the ownership of lakefront land between Lighthouse Beach and Lakeside Park (Fishery No 1) would be a bone of contention between the City of Port Huron, cottage owners in that area, the Hoffman estate, and John M McKerchey, who claimed legal ownership of Fishery No.1.
However, this is another story, which I will be published later.
The above map shows the location of the McCollum icehouse at a juncture where Holland Ave meets La Salle Park.
As you can see its eastern face is almost in the water. It juts onto Old Lakeshore Road, a road which until recently I did not know existed!
The Old Lakeshore Road was originally laid out in a survey completed by an engineer named Ward in 1837.
The road ran from the top of Edison Beach, past the proposed City Electric Railway Park, the F J. Dixon property, La Salle Beach, Lakeside Park, to Huronia Beach where it looks like it disappears into Lake Huron.
In a nutshell, the McCollom icehouse complex would eventually be completed, and the harvesting of ice would begin right out its front door.
The harvesting of ice, its storage, and delivery, were trades not designed for people who were shy of working hard, nor those too sensitive to cold working conditions.
One could only imagine trekking out in the early morning darkness, onto a frozen bay, lake, or river. The bitter cold winds and bulky outer clothing make your walk cumbersome. The blowing snow
obscures your visibility. Placing your horse and your cutter onto the ice field, hoping not to locate a weak spot on the icy surface where one might find a watery grave for himself or his faithful steed.
Some of these ice“breaking” accidents would occur during spring-like weather conditions, where the thickness of the ice could vary in a day or two.
The icemen would work from early morning until early evening, or perhaps even longer. A lot of the ice-cutting companies were contracted by the ice houses for a pre-determined quantity of ice for the season. The contractors might instruct the workers to fill a particular quantity of ice per day and the work would continue until that number was achieved. They may also offer them a bonus if they exceeded the daily objective. (On a side note, when I worked picking tobacco in Strathroy, Ontario in the late 1960s, our day was not finished until we had picked and hung ¼ of a kiln, which often meant 13-hour days. A bonus was paid if we surpassed that goal, a lofty achievement for a 15-year-old tobacco rooky. It was a goal that only the most experienced tobacco pickers might manage. It was long, hard, arduous labor. In reflection, however, although this work was difficult, I considered it all part of growing up, one of life’s experiences that would follow me into manhood.)
Your time spent as an ice harvester were also difficult hours.
For some of these workers, nothing in life had arrived easily. Their days prior to the ice industry business were probably poor ones, doing several miscellaneous unskilled tasks for little money.
The ice industry gave them that opportunity to earn a weekly paycheck, a tough wage that may provide a start to a more secure future. Union wages for ice laborers back in the early 1900s were around $0.15 per hour. An article in the Times-Herald of February 1923 read “He Man’s Job is Ice Cutting. How would you like to be an ice cutter, or a spud man, a plowman, or a channeler? If you are
red-blooded, rarin- to go and a man’s man, enough to grapple in hand-to-hand encounters with the icy grasps of King Winter at the iciest, then you are qualified for one of the above-named occupations”.
Locally, ice was harvested from the St Clair River, Lake Huron, Sarnia Bay, Saginaw Bay, and the Black River. Black River ice was less desirable because of the pollutants in the river during the early 1900s.
My recent story about Port Huron’s building of the Black River’s “cleansing canal”, shone some light on the polluted condition of the Black River in the early 1900s. It was a cesspool of chemical toxins.
The city passed certain ordinances that prohibited some areas of the Black River from ice harvesters. There was also an ordinance that would not allow any ice dealers to misrepresent Black River ice, like ice that was harvested from a cleaner environment, such as Lake Huron. Another ice ordinance the city deliberated was that all ice vendors supply scales for the weighing of ice when requested by the consumer.
During the 1923 harvesting season, Sarnia Bay ice cutters estimated a crop of 1,000,000 pounds of ice, a task requiring the employment of 125 workers.
Harvesting Ice on Sarnia Bay Ca 1920..note the train in the foreground
Ice was a vital component in the lives of people in the commercial, industrial, and medical sectors of our economy, just to name a few. Without some means of refrigeration, much of the food industry would not exist. Industries that needed cooling for their manufacturing would be crippled and medicines that needed to be kept cold would warm and render themselves ineffective.
One only needs to think about the panicked situation we face today when our power fails, how we scramble to keep our perishables from doing just that.
Icehouses were built so that all the sides were double-walled. The area between each wall could be a few inches up to a few feet thick. The houses had a ventilation area at the top of the structure to help release any heat buildup or moisture. The area between the walls was usually packed with sawdust which acted as an insulator much like Styrofoam would today. Under the house ice was a drain that would allow any moisture from ice melt to be channeled away from the structure.
A good ice house could keep ice intact for several years.
Your typical ice block was 20 inches by 40inches, assuming a thickness of 11 inches it would weigh about 320 pounds. The blocks of ice would be packed as solidly as possible to help prevent any air trapped between the ice layers which could initiate melting conditions.
One of the more famous ice harvesting industries was located at Rockland Lake NY, which provided ice for the meat industries in New York City. It was so well known at that time, that Port Huron’s Thomas Edison made a movie of it. If you “Google” Rockland Lake ice harvesting there is an interesting 6-minute video completed in February of 1902 by Edison. It is certainly worth watching!
(You can also “Google” Port Huron’s Knowlton Ice Museum. It has one of North America’s largest collections of ice harvesting paraphernalia. Hours and location are available on their website)
Rockland Lake Ice Harvesting
Many of the local natural ice companies were also in the coal business. Coal sales in the summer were slow as the demand for home heat was most likely non-existent. Most household coal usage in the summer months was directed to cooking one’s dinner.
Although there were some summer commercial outlets for coal, such as the electrical generating industry which required year-round coal consumption, these sales were not plentiful, and not all companies had the means to entertain the large contracts.
Ice sales and distribution were a nice addition to the local coal business, providing additional retail opportunities over the long summer season.
Ice was typically sold by the cord, just like a cord of wood. A cord is 128 cubic feet, eight feet by four feet by four feet. The average price of a cord of ice back in the early 1900s was $2.00.
There were many natural ice houses in Port Huron. In 1900 The Consolidated Ice Company would purchase the Lake Huron Ice Co., Tunnel City Ice Co., St Clair River Ice and Coal Co., and the Up River Ice Company. The stockholders were John B Petit, F A Petit, Geo. Jenkinson, Geo. W Moore, and Fred T Moore.
McCollom Ice and Coal Co. at the end of Holland Ave, which I mentioned earlier, would eventually be sold to the Consolidated Ice Company in 1904. Swift and Company, the meat packers, had an ice warehouse at 32 St, and 13th St along with another just north of the Grand Trunk Railway in Point Edward Ontario, which could store up 6 million pounds of ice. The Grand Trunk RR. had an ice house at the Port Huron/Sarnia tunnel and at the foot of Elmwood Street. There was also the Port Huron Ice Company managed by M V Elliott, the Lakeside Ice and Coal Company owned by George Denier near the Elmwood Street bridge off Water Street. Armour and Company had a large ice house on 16th Street and the Chicago Beef Company also had plans to build an icehouse also in the vicinity of the tunnel.
Railways provided the most efficient means of travel for perishable goods going long distances.
“Reefer” cars provided cool environments for meats, fruits, vegetables, and other perishable items keeping them from spoiling on their way to markets. These insulated cars were packed with ice from a loading platform that sat above the car on the railroad siding.
Loading Ice into the Tops of Insulated Railroad Cars
Crushed ice was wheeled from the ice house to the railroad loading platforms in” ice buggies” which were similar to a wheel barrel.
The ice was poured from the buggies by men using a moveable chute which allowed them to fill the entire length of the car. Swift’s ice house, at the Port Huron/Sarnia tunnel, could load as many as 110 rail cars in a single day with up to 8000 pounds of ice per car. (That’s 880,000 pounds of ice!) The elevated platform was 800 feet long and the ice house was 80 feet by 254 feet. Twenty-four cars could be iced on each side of the elevated platform for a total packing space serving 48 cars. Most of the ice is packed on any given day had been harvested 2 years previous.
Local retail sales were conducted through an ice house, an ice distributor, or one could simply flag down an ice carriage on the street and make a purchase.
My earliest recollections of the “iceman “were of a big dude with red cheeks, an inviting smile, and more muscle than I ever hoped to acquire, during my body’s best physical times. He would grasp the ice with a set of large tongs, pull it from the wagon and carry it to the door of our icebox. Most often it would fit through the door, as he remembered the make and dimensions of each icebox along his route. If the ice was a little too large, he could cut it or shave it with a skilled swipe of his ice cutter or an educated chop with his well-placed chisel, and be quickly on his way.
A Typical Residential Ice Box
The ice was delivered much as the milkman or breadman delivered their wares.
You could place an order for weekly or monthly deliveries. The larger the order, the cheaper the price.
The best deal in the above ad would give you 175 pounds of ice per week or 700 pounds of ice per month, all for $2.00. Wow, a lot of work for little money by today’s standards!
As we moved on into the 20th century, natural ice would slowly be replaced by artificial ice.
It is hard to believe that the first machine designed for refrigeration was in 1805 by an American Oliver Adams. It, however, remained in the prototype stage. The first ice machine to be patented was built by a physician, John Gorrie, who astonished guests at a party with his mechanical ice maker. The date was May 6, 1851.
In Port Huron from 1915 to 1930, the natural ice harvesters were being replaced by artificial ice manufacturers. Natural ice was becoming less reliable. A warm winter meant a lack of ice to cool goods that needed refrigeration. Spoilage of perishable goods was very costly and could drive food growers and distributors into bankruptcy.
In March of 1919 natural ice distributers in Port Huron, such as the Purity Ice Company, managed by George Jenkinson, began purchasing artificial ice from an ice plant in Sarnia and from the Port Huron Creamery, which I had one of the first artificial ice plants in the area. The principals of the Port Huron Creamery were H. C. Knill, John Ruff, E L Vincent, and Frank C Schell.
In November of 1920, the H.C. Kern Product Company planned to invest $100,000 in an artificial ice plant located near their beverage plant on River Street. It was to be finished in April of the following year and “would be the most modern in this section of the state “producing 50 tons of pure artificial ice per day. In 1929 the Continental Ice and Refrigeration Company of Chicago announced plans to build an ice plant on the site of the old Grand Trunk Railway ice house.
Other artificial ice companies that quickly sprung up during this time were the Arctic Ice Company at 311 River St., Northside Ice at 1737 Lyons, the Port Huron Artificial Ice Company, Lakeside Ice and Coal, and Valentine Ice Service, just to name a few.
The Port Huron Artificial Ice Company Building Still Stands at 4th St and Wall St.
In completing this short narrative on the harvesting of natural ice in Port Huron, I will end where I began, with John M. Hoffmann and the I E McCollom Ice House.
The McCollom Ice Houses at the intersection of La Salle Park and Holland Ave would live a short life, that being from 1900 to 1906.
In 1906 the City of Port Huron would purchase the ice houses and the land they stood on. They wanted to make a right of way to straighten Conger Street and to take in more land for development.
To do this, it would have been necessary to cut through the middle of the McCollom ice houses.
W J Sphears was contracted to raze the large structures and the work was completed sometime in late 1906.
This demolition was most certainly a big relief to the cottage owners on the lakeshore and to Port Huron’s tourist entrepreneurs, who were developing vacation resorts in that area such as La Salle Beach, the Windemere, Huronia Beach, Gratiot Beach, and the Maple Villas.
The Knill Cottage would have its view restored, a view of our beautiful Lake Huron! So there you have it, a warm ending to a rather icy story!