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 by 1890 it was well established. There was a demand for ice for home use, the packing industry, and for railroad refrigerator cars.
One of the largest and best known operations 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. Ice was cut whenever the thickness reached ten or more inches. Most of the ice cut by the Crete Mills 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. The Crete Mills also operated a smaller cutting operation at Curtis, where they used the mill pond at the Curtis Roller Mill.
Large ice cutting operations were carried out at Memphis at a series of small lakes. Swift and Company maintained a large operation at Ashland. At Crystal Lake south of Hastings there was a large business dating from 1893 when the Crystal Ice Company dammed a portion of the Little Blue River north of Ayr, creating Crystal Lake for harvesting and selling ice. A huge storage and loading facility was built on the nearby Republican Valley branch of the Burlington Railroad. Horsedrawn scoring knives and long ice saws, later replaced by power saws, cut the ice into squares.
At Orleans the Booth Ice Company cut ice on the Republican River for a number of years. In addition, there were many small cutting operations which supplied local areas with ice for home and store use. Unfortunately, there are today few remains of the natural ice industry. It ended shortly after World War II due partly to the development of large mechanical ice manufacturing plants and electric refrigerators.