LOOKBACK: Cedar River once relied on for ice
For decades, Austin community, Hormel Foods used Mill Pond’s frozen ‘cakes’
By Tim Ruzek, Cedar River Watershed District
Heading into the 1910–1911 winter, the growing Austin community had been “suffering a real ice famine” for several years.
“All of the dealers have been out of the crystal for weeks and have had to buy a supply for their customers,” the Austin Daily Herald wrote in October 1910.
With Austin’s population increasing, the local demand for ice was getting difficult to satisfy. At the time, the best source for ice was the backwater, swampland of the Cedar River known today as Austin Mill Pond, upstream from the downtown dam.
River ice was a vital part of early Austin and the initial survival and significant growth of the Hormel Foods Corp. when the plant was located along the river on Austin Mill Pond’s southeast side.
Austin homes and businesses relied on river ice until the early 1920s, when artificial ice machinery first came to the community to help meet local demand in addition to harvested river ice.
Hormel Foods, which needed large quantities of ice, harvested ice chunks from the Cedar River until 1936 when the Cedar River no longer could supply enough. The company then installed four ice-making machines, each with the capacity to create 30 tons of ice per day.
That last ice harvesting season of the 1935–1936 winter came with tragedy. On Jan. 6, 1936, an Austin-area farmer lost two horses while driving them on the frozen river for Hormel’s ice harvesting. The horses fell through the ice and drowned. Although not responsible for the incident, the company chose to pay for two new horses for the farmer two months later.
Back in fall 1910, Austin’s growing need for river ice led to public pressure being mounted on local ice dealers to get a better supply.
“The crop each winter is big enough but the supply for summer is altogether too small,” the Herald wrote.
Sam Young heard that message.
That same month, Young, who had been cutting ice from the Cedar River the past three winters, announced he was buying a doctor’s property on East Water Street (4th Ave NE) at the present-day site of the Austin Public Library.
Already working to build larger and better ice houses to meet local demands, Young acquired the property that ran down to the Cedar River’s backwaters. It gave him an ideal right-of-way to the winter ice fields.
“Mr. Young says that he appreciated the way the Austin people have acted during the ice famine and he says he’ll show them that he can reciprocate. He’s going to build houses large enough to supply all wants.”
On Nov. 26, 1910, the Herald reported that “our ice men don’t intend to have to buy outside ice next season.”
At the time, Sam Young, who bought an ice business in 1907 when ice-harvester Charles Gripman died at age 36, was finishing the construction of a large ice house.
“That new ice house of Sam L. Young on the north end of the Dr. Allen lots on Water Street is nearly finished and it is immense,” the Mower County Transcript wrote Nov. 30, 1910.
Gripman’s relatives — the Gripman Brothers (whom Charles had severed business ties with in 1902) also, however, were building a new ice house.
During the “ice famine” years leading up to the 1910–1911 winter, the George A. Hormel Packing Co. expanded its facilities. In May 1908, the company built four buildings, including a second, large ice house.
That was a good addition for the winter of 1908–1909 when Hormel harvested about 15,000 tons of ice from the Cedar River.
“It is the best ice that was ever taken out of the river by the company,” a newspaper reported Feb. 18, 1909.
Young seemed to agree on the quality of the river’s ice that winter. When he finished harvesting a month earlier, Young had stored 44,800 “cakes,” each weighing no less than 400 pounds for nearly 9,000 tons.
“The ice is the clearest and best ever cut in the river,” the Herald wrote in January 1909. “The ice cutters say that the big flood last June (1908) cleared out some of the mud, leaving a greater depth of ice free from weeds and dirt.”
Young’s ice operation
Ice harvesting was just one aspect of Young’s overall business ventures but definitely an interesting one. He started as an Austin businessman in 1898 with a team of horses and a wagon, waiting downtown for work.
When he located along the river on Water Street, Young cut ice on the south half of the Cedar River at today’s Austin Mill Pond. Hormel Foods cut ice on the north half for the plant.
Young, who early on sold and delivered a whole load of ice to Austin homes for $1 per load, filled his ice house along with sheds on both sides of it, his daughter, Margaret L. Merritt, wrote in March 1978 in the Herald. For many years, Young had the contract to fill five ice houses at the Milwaukee Railroad and fill ice cars on the Great Western railroad to be taken to Hayfield for storage in a large ice house.
“Many farmers would buy ice from him and many small towns and many creameries would fill their ice houses with his ice,” Young’s daughter wrote.
When cutting river ice, Young liked to have it about 18 inches thick. His electric saw cut about 8 inches down and then he hand chopped the rest one row at a time. He then would “pike” the ice down the channel and onto a platform to be loaded on wagons (trucks in later years) or placed in the ice house.
In early fall, men asked Young to be placed on his ice gang, which typically was about 40 men. This meant two to four months of work usually from December to February. Some worked on a night shift, with tasks including keeping lanterns burning along the river and ensuring the channel didn’t freeze over by morning.
Ice harvesting crews stayed busy on Mill Pond/Lake Lincoln
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the largest area of the Cedar River’s backwaters behind the downtown dam was called “Lake Lincoln,” which was a an active place each winter.
“The river presents a busy scene these pleasant winter days for the ice harvest has begun,” the Herald wrote in January 1902 under the headline, “Ice Harvest Begins — Excellent Material for Summer Use Being Gathered.”
Alex Campbell, George Hormel and other owners of the downtown mill dam sold ice-cutting privileges to ice companies and other businesses that stored ice in town. Hormel bought the mill and dam in July 1917 in part to retain control of the ice field created by the downtown dam.
Crews for the ice companies, which each had its own frozen field on the Cedar to work on, were “waiting for another cold snap” in January 1902 to add a few inches of ice thickness. Two weeks of warmer weather was scaring them.
“They are going to fill the ice houses with the crop as it stands, fearing that an early spring will open up the river,” the report stated. “There is a lot of interest in watching the work and many go to the field to see the harvest.”
On Jan. 23, 1907, the Mower County Transcript reported Lake Lincoln “has been a place of great activity during the past week” with “unusually clear” ice around 20 inches thick. Several crews had been harvesting ice. Hormel’s packing house had filled its immense storehouses and planned to create a large, outside lot for early use in icing railcars.
Gripman Brothers were filling their houses. Several neighboring creameries were hauling their summer supply of ice, and the brewing companies had filled their ice storehouses. Numerous farmers filled ice houses each year, holding 25 to 75 tons each.
Some businesses like the Eclipse Lumber Co. in 1915 sold small ice houses it kept in stock “by the hundreds.”
At times, local youth got pulled into the harvest. When F.A. Smith filled his ice house by doing “a hauling bee,” his son, Arthur, sawed over 200 ice cakes in one day, according to the Herald in February 1910.
“Arthur says he would rather cut cakes that the girls bake than those Jack Frost makes,” the Herald wrote.
Two years later, the Herald announced “40,000 Tons of Ice — The Big Ice Harvest of the Season Now on in Full Force.”
“Lake Lincoln is a scene of industry just now with an army of men gathering the frost crystals that some may have ice cream and buttermilk cocktails and others mint julips next summer,” the Herald wrote Jan. 15, 1909.
Not all the harvested ice, though, was going to be used for “simply cooling drinks,” for at least 40,000 tons of ice was planned for storage. Some local brewing companies, which only used river ice for storage plants, were satisfied with a poorer quality of ice.
While the Lake Lincoln area downtown was the hot spot for ice cakes, the mill pond created on the Cedar River above Ramsey Dam (back then a few miles north of Austin) also offered ice. A report in January 1898 detailed men cutting ice above Ramsey.
In 1921, W.H. Meyers, who owned the Ramsey Dam and adjacent grain mill (today’s Old Mill Restaurant), started the Ramsey Ice Co. He offered “Pure Natural Ice” and built three ice houses next to the mill He also ran office for the ice business in Austin next door to the Young’s ice business on East Water Street.
An ad for Ramsey Ice Co. proclaimed: “Our ice is sawed and handled by modern machinery. Every cake is surface planed on the way to storage.”
In December 1922, an Austin family sued Ramsey Ice Co. for negligence in putting ice into their home’s ice box.
A family alleged that the ice box’s door was closed and that their 3-year-old daughter then was injured when a “large piece of ice fell out and crushed her foot,” according to a news report.
Fire in August 1929, however, destroyed the Ramsey Ice Co. ice houses at Ramsey Dam. Flax straw, used to pack the ice, had caught fire from a spark. About 3,000 tons of ice were in the houses, with some of it surviving.
But the majority of ice harvesting work was focused on the Lake Lincoln stretch of the Cedar River downtown.
Lake Lincoln went away in name and physical form once the city and state began work around 1915 on creating the new Horace Austin State Park, shaping the Cedar River’s backwaters to look more like a lake than a swampland.
In November 1915, the Mower County Transcript-Republican reported on the effort to take more territory in that area for the new state park. This included plans for cleaning up a large ice field that supplies the city and Hormel plant but sediment had filled it. A year later, a dredger operating on the river for the state-park construction also was used by Hormel to clean its ice field and straighten its shoreline.
Hormel creates elaborate ice-harvesting system
From the start in 1891 with his packinghouse, George Hormel relied on the Cedar River for ice. After fire in 1896 destroyed the old creamery building Hormel started in, along with a brick smokehouse, he built a 60x40-foot facility for cold storage.
As his cold-storage capacity grew, Hormel relied heavily on crews to harvest large quantities of ice from the Cedar River. With that, came quite a process to get the heavy ice cakes where they needed to go.
In January 1909, the Herald detailed the logistics of Hormel’s ice harvesting, which, at the time, involved planning for storage of at least 15,000 tons of ice.
The river’s ice sheet was divided into claims, with each ice firm cutting on its own territory.
Hormel handled ice in the “most up-to-date fashion,” storing 800 tons of ice every 10 hours, with a crew of 40 men.
“A wooden slide reaches from the storage houses for a quarter of a mile across the ice to where the cutting is going,” the Herald wrote. “There are 14 men on the ice. Some prying the long strips of ice loose; others breaking these strips up to cubes weighing from 300 to 400 pounds each; others with long poles pushing the cakes toward the chute.”
An incline plane ran from the chute under the water, where the ice cakes were pushed onto the plane. Ice cakes then were attached by cable to a big draft horse that pulled them up and into the chute.
Between the point where the ice enters the chute and the ice houses, 10 heavy draft horses — each connected to a steel cable with a loop — pulled ice cakes to the houses.
“This loop is thrown over six cakes of ice and the horse hauls it along the chute,” the Herald wrote. “Every three minutes, six of these cakes start from the river for the houses. Reaching the houses, the cakes are slid up onto a platform. On the platform and in the houses, 16 men are employed.”
Ice cakes then were pushed onto an elevator and raised by a cable attached to a windlass run by a 15-horse power motor. Inside the house, men with hooks moved the cakes to their destination, where other men packed them away.
Gripmans get inventive with ice harvesting
Gripman Brothers, who also did significant ice harvesting in Albert Lea, had a large crew in January 1909 working to fill their ice houses. Gripmans had harvested ice in Austin dating back to around 1891, and expanded in 1897 when a new ice firm sold out quickly.
In January 1897, the Herald announced the firm of Edgerton & Cuidice planned to build a large ice house and fill it “full with the best ice that can be found in the Cedar River.” The duo had secured a five-year lease of ground from the Baudler family near the river bank on what was north edge of Austin, which today is the stretch of the Cedar downstream from Interstate 90.
“This goes to say that they calculate to stay in the business for several years to come,” a Herald reported.
Three months later, Edgerton & Culdice sold their ice business to Gripman Brothers.
By February 1898, Gripman Bros. reported filling a fourth ice house.
“It looks now as if they would control the ice trade in Austin this summer,” the Mower County Transcript wrote.
For hauling ice from the river to the ice surface, Gripmans initially used a horse and sweep. As soon as six cakes of ice are landed on the ice, they were dragged over the ice by a team of horses and elevated to ice houses by power-driven elevators.
By January 1902, Gripman Bros., with their large field along the Baudler property where a current ran in the Cedar River, reported cutting “some splendid ice” and harvesting it with a new method.
Sam Gripman had invented a floating elevator he claimed was the quickest method of taking ice from the river. Fourteen cakes were slid at a time from the river center to ice houses, where a gang of men packed them away for summer.
Gripman Bros. promoted their frozen product to the public by reminding them of what it could lead to during summer — ice cream. A news note on June 23, 1897, read: “Rose, orange, chocolate, vanilla, lemon and strawberry flavored ice cream for sale in any quantity by Gripman Bros. Wholesale and retail.”
A month later, the Mower County Transcript wrote, “These hot days remind us that Gripman’s ice cream is the best in the city. Try it and see.”
Gripmans started advertising for ice contracts in spring. In May 1900, the company, which also sold coal and wood, ran an ad saying the time was right to “make your contracts for your season’s ice. Summer will soon be here.” In 1901, they charged families $2 per month for ice.
In May 1902, however, Charles Gripman severed his connection to the family operation and bought the ice business of C.M. Emmons. Charles then started marketing himself as Austin’s “Ice King” until his death in 1907.
In January 1914, the remaining Gripman Bros. sold their ice business and ice houses to the McCormick Coal and Ice Company, which cut ice for years, including under contract with the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad.
Age of artificial ice comes to Austin
In 1921, Sam Young drastically changed the ice-supplying business in Austin when he installed an artificial ice plant that could produce up to 25 tons of ice per day. Powered by electricity, the modern ice-making machinery created ice from spring water pumped on site.
“This was the last word in ice and refrigeration,” Young’s daughter wrote in 1978.
Under hot weather conditions when the demand for ice was unusually heavy, Young’s plant could double its capacity for creating ice artificially.
Mower County News reported Nov. 24, 1921, that “the people of Austin will have no cause for worry during the hot months of July and August the next few years at least, about any scarcity of the crystal-like cakes of coolness and the resulting sourness of their milk, and other perishables due to that lack.”
As long as the city springs continued to flow normally, there was no question about the ice supply.
“Austin will be supplied with all the ice she will need for her hot weather requirements daily from the purest and finest spring water in the United States,” the newspaper reported.
Young built a new facility for the artificial ice machinery and had additional ice houses for storing 2,000 tons of river ice to use for icing refrigerator railcars as well as at butcher shops and other places that consumed large quantities of ice.
“It’s a little early in the season to talk about the ice harvest but the people of Austin will have no cause for worry during the hot months of July and August the next few years at least, about any scarcity of the crystal-like cakes of coolness, and the resulting sourness of their milk and other perishables due to that lack,” the Herald reported.
When completed and operating by March 1922, Austin “will be the only city in southern Minnesota outside of Rochester” that will have a modern, sanitary ice plant.
Ice cakes produced artificially by Young weighed 400 pounds each. Each ice block would “come up to the chin of a good-sized man.”
“No light-weight need apply to Mr. Young for the job of handling this ‘pre-bred’ ice for it will require a dispenser of special aptitude to safely negotiate 400-pound cakes of ice,” the article stated.
While artificial ice production helped considerably in meeting local demands, the harvesting of river ice continued. For the 1927–1928 winter, for example, Austin harvested 35,000 tons of ice for storage in warehouses, mostly for use by Hormel.
In 1944, Young died and his children carried on the family business, which a 1963 newspaper ad called Austin’s oldest and largest trucking firm.
Ice-supplying needs eventually went away as homes and businesses began to have access to refrigerators and freezers with technology advancements, especially in the 1930s.
In June 1963, the Herald reported that fire destroyed nearly all the Young family’s former ice facilities, which had been remodeled into a warehouse.