The Iceman Cometh

Tom McDermott
Posted 8/24/21

The Iceman Cometh. Before it was a play, it was a weekly event at most homes in Rochelle.

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The Iceman Cometh


The Iceman Cometh. Before it was a play, it was a weekly event at most homes in Rochelle.

There was a day before refrigerators occupied every kitchen. The only way to keep food cold was the ice box. The ice box was a metal lined piece of furniture which had a compartment for a block of ice which cooled the rest of the contents.

To work the ice box needed one thing, ice. Ice, as I am sure you are aware, does not grow on trees. From around 1874 through the early 1900s, ice in Rochelle came from Braiden’s quarry.

The quarry was allowed to flood each winter. As the cold settled over the community, the lake would slowly freeze. Once frozen, an army of about 30 men would begin harvesting ice blocks.

The harvest was no random event. The ice had to be 9-14-inches thick, with 14 preferred. The workmen would then clear the ice of snow and use a horse drawn “ice plow” to scribe a grid onto the ice.

These shallow-cut grid lines would mark where the sawyer was to hand cut the ice into uniform blocks. Each block was 2-foot-by-3-foot and weighed 350 pounds. After the block was cut it was dragged by horses up a three-story ramp and lowered down another ramp into the ice storage building.

Two horses would pull three ice blocks (slightly over 1,000 pounds) at a time up the ramp. A single horse would pull the iron hook back down the ramp for the next set of blocks. Once in the ice house, the blocks were piled up to six layers high.

When one layer was full, saw dust was spread over the ice to keep the layers from freezing together. The ramp from the lake side was raised and the next layer of ice was deposited on top of the last.

Onward and upward until the ice house was filled. Of course, during the winter most folks would store their perishables in a root cellar or simply in a snow bank by the back door. When the weather warmed, Braiden’s ice wagon would start its daily rounds.

The wagon carried up to four tons of ice. Al and Wiley Lind were two of the icemen. They would deliver ice to those on their route or others who waved them down. The large blocks were chipped down to a size that would fit in the ice box (usually about 12 inches square)a nd the ice was delivered to the ice box. 

The winter harvest of ice was the supply for the year. If the winter was average, three harvests could be made in that year. If winter was mild, there was less ice harvested and people had to minimize their use.

Some years there were disasters that put the whole ice supply in jeopardy. One such year was 1903. On a hot June day passersby noticed smoke coming from the ice house.

The fire bell was sounded and the hose cart was pulled to the scene. Despite their best efforts, the fire fighters were unable to control the blaze. The ice house was completely destroyed and with it 500 tons of ice was lost, the total ice supply for the city for the rest of the year.

The ice house was rebuilt before the next harvest, but 1903 was a most difficult year. 

In the 1920s, compressors and cooling systems had evolved and H.T. Harms invested $25,000 into an ice house.

Mr. Harms could produce and store 16 tons of ice and if the supply ran low he could freeze more. This revolutionized the ice business and the quarry became obsolete.

In a few short years, compressors became small enough that the ice boxes were replaced with refrigerators.

After that, the Iceman Cometh no more.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.