Cool Off with Nebraska’s Ice Industry

Women posing with ice harvesting poles on frozen lake

Today a manmade lake in Saunders County is part of a recreation area, but the lake itself was not made for recreation. It was made for ice. Memphis State Recreation Area is a fine place for fishing and boating, but it’s also an unusual legacy of Nebraska’s meatpacking industry.

(Above: women pose with an ice pole in a circa 1910 photo by John Nelson of Ericson, Nebraska. Behind them, men are harvesting ice for storage. RG3542-95-12)

For many years the cutting of ice from rivers and lakes was an important winter industry, especially in eastern Nebraska. Just when the natural ice industry began in this state is unknown, but it was well established by 1890. Large quantities of ice were needed for the meatpacking industry, for railroad refrigerator cars, and for home use.

The refrigerator car is one of the great innovations that transformed the cattle industry. The first refrigerated boxcar was used in New York State in 1851, but the first practical “reefers” didn’t appear until an engineer for the Swift Company designed an insulated, ventilated car in 1878. This car held ice at the top of the car so that the cold air would flow downward. The meat was packed at the bottom of the car to ensure a low center of gravity and stability on the tracks. Now meat packers could ship their products across the United States.

But they needed ice. Lots of it. The Armour and Company Icehouse was built in 1897-98 northwest of Memphis, Nebraska. It was one of the largest icehouses in the country, measuring approximately 180 feet wide, 700 feet long, and 52 feet high. A 300-horsepower steam engine and two generators provided electrical power.

The only practical way to get ice was to harvest it during the winter from lakes and rivers. A manmade lake of about 100 acres was filled each fall from Silver Creek. Harvesting began when the ice was eight inches thick. It was scored, then sawed with horse-drawn ice saws. The blocks were then poled along an open channel to elevators and into ice rooms, where they were packed in sawdust. In the spring the lake was drained, leaving a small fish pond.

The ice was used in refrigerated railcars and meatpacking plants, and was also sold to businesses in eastern Nebraska. Approximately 100,000 tons of ice were harvested in 1899. It was common to ship 100 or more railcars of ice each month during the summer. Twenty-five employees lived nearby, and 300 men were hired during the busy season. Most of them stayed in the “Armour Hotel,” which in reality was more of a large bunkhouse than a proper hotel.

The Armour Icehouse wasn’t the only big operation in Nebraska. One of the largest and best known was run by the Crete Mills at Crete. At first ice was cut from the Big Blue River, but as the demand increased, two lakes were constructed on the west side of the river. In addition, a large icehouse was built. During the season 75 to 100 men were employed to cut and handle the ice. Most of the Crete ice was sold to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, which shipped the freshly cut ice in especially designed “ice service” cars to various icing stations along the railroad. As many as 100 cars of ice were shipped daily from Crete during the ice cutting season.

Color postcard of ice houses by RR track: "Union Pacific Ice Houses, North Platte, Neb. Largest in the World."

By about 1910 Union Pacific claimed to have the world’s largest ice house in North Platte. History Nebraska RG2154-6-58


Other ice cutting operations were located around the state. South of Hastings, “Crystal Lake” was created by damming a portion of the Big Blue River north of Ayr. Yet another operation was located on the Republican River near Orleans, and many other small cutting operations supplied local areas with ice for home and store use.

One drawback of natural ice was that the annual harvest was vulnerable to warm winters. “There is a panic among the ice dealers, brewers, butchers and packers just now,” the Omaha Daily Bee reported on January 9, 1882, “and every sort of scheme is being devised to get ice for next season’s use.” An unseasonably warm December meant that “the nearest known ice supply is Manitoba.”

Omaha mayor James Boyd owned an ice house near the Missouri River with a storage capacity of 6,000 tons. As a last resort he was prepared to invest in a newfangled $20,000 “cooling machine” to blow cold air through the rooms and lessen the loss of stored ice due to melting.

Bear in mind that this was just one year after the infamous “Snow Winter” of 1880-81, the subject of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular 1940 book, The Long Winter. Across the Great Plains, settlers were learning what Native residents had long understood: the region’s climate was prone to extremes.

Fortunately, the weather soon turned colder. On January 18 the Bee reported that the “ice harvest began here last week, with blocks of ice eight inches thick.” Apparently the warm weather was posing a nationwide problem for the ice trade. On January 26 the Bee noted: “Thirty degrees below zero was recorded on the Hudson yesterday, and the ice harvesters’ hallelujah is being loudly sung for forty miles along the river.”

By the turn of the century, mechanical refrigeration was becoming more practical, and Chicago meatpacking plants adopted ammonia-cycle refrigeration. In Nebraska, the Valley Ice Company of Lincoln began manufacturing ice in 1901. The ice was clear and pure and desirable for home use—fit for a cool glass of lemonade— but “harvested ice” was still cheaper for railroad use.

Memphis lake ice was also said to be better than river ice, pure enough for home use. Armour workers used to drain their lake every spring and re-dredge it. The icehouse burned in 1921, putting an end to summer storage at the site. After that, Memphis ice was loaded directly onto railcars in cold weather. In 1930 Memphis State Recreation Area was established at the site of the icehouse and lake. No ice is harvested these days. Instead, the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission stocks the lake with fish for anglers. A historical marker at the site commemorates the lake’s history.

Crystal Lake in Adams County is also now a State Recreation Area, and has its own historical marker commemorating its ice harvest history. After its ice trade days ended, the lake eventually silted in, but was dredged and improved in 1976.

Despite advancing technology, harvested ice had a surprisingly long history. It remained common into the 1950s, when mechanically refrigerated railcars began to replace ice-based cars. Today little physical evidence remains of the big railroad ice houses of the past, but the historical markers remain to tell the story. (Find them all with our free historical marker app!)

Armour Refrigerated Line boxcar

An Armour refrigerated car, probably in Omaha, 1935. History Nebraska RG3882-50-168

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