Ask anyone who grew up on the East Side during the “ice box” era about favorite pastimes and you’re likely to hear about begging (or stealing) slivers of ice from horse-drawn wagons delivering ice or milk. Local delivery businesses were just the “tip of the iceberg” of local industries built on ice.
Poling harvested ice toward the hoist
Ice was harvested out of Madison lakes commercially for local use as early as 1856 by Albert Warren, whose business was at the intersection of North Hamilton and North Pinckney Streets. In the 1870s Henry Allen and John Pyncheon cut and sold Lake Monona ice from their ice house on Rutledge Street. The Kurtz and Huegle Ice Co. was located on Lake Mendota in what is now Maple Bluff. That’s a lot of industry built on local ice!
After the railroads came to Madison, the prospect of shipping ice to consumers in cities to the south became feasible. Also, the large breweries and meat packing plants both locally and in Chicago and Saint Louis created a demand for lake ice.
Several Illinois firms built ice harvesting businesses around the Madison lakes including Knickerbocker on Lake Wingra and Lake Monona, and the Jefferson Ice Co. and Esch Bros. and Rabe Ice Co. at the east end of Lake Monona at the foot of what used to be called “Ice House Hill” and is now called the Olbrich Sledding Hill.
The local ice scene was dominated by Conklin & Sons, who had a very large ice house on Lake Mendota in what is now James Madison Park. For a long time the park was informally called Conklin Park. They delivered Madison lake ice to other cities well into the 1930s.
Conklin Ice House located where James Madison Park is today.
Cutting ice from Madison’s lakes was cold, hard labor that took place during a 4 to 6 week period in January & February. Unemployed construction laborers and farm hands worked 10 hour days for 50 cents a day. One house piece of ice (average 20 lbs) per day sold for 50 cents per week or $2 per month in 1882.
The Conklins sold their ice business to the Oscar Mayer company, which had been making and delivering “mechanical” ice since the 1920s. Oscar Mayer stopped making ice in 1968 and has relied on mechanical refrigeration since then.
Oscar Mayer Ice delivery ca. 1940
Ice boxes in private homes were popular from about the 1840s through the 1940s.
Mechanical refrigerators were invented by GE in 1911. They gradually replaced ice boxes, which required the constant cost and delivery of ice (often inconsistent in quality), messy disposal of melted ice water, and making do without a “freezer” to keep food really cold.
As with other modern appliances, the quality of refrigerators keep going up while the cost kept coming down and when the supply increased after World War II the end of the ice box era was at hand.