Our Lake County lakes and rivers, including Fancher Lake, Cedar Lake, the Kankakee and the Calumet Rivers, furnished thousands of tons of frozen water for over seventy years, and for a time, ice cutting was a principal business in the area.
When the "Pan Handle" railroad was constructed through Crown Point back in 1865, shipping to Chicago was an easier task, and by the early 1870's the streets of the city were filled with wagons and teams hard at work hauling ice from Fancher Lake to the railroad station.
In 1873 the Whitewater Ice Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio, was busy taking ice from the lake, loading railroad cars and building "stacks" of ice near the water and at the station. Eighty men and thirty teams were kept busy every hour of the day, their wagons traveling up and down both East St. and Main St. on their way to the depot.
The "stacks" in both places were huge piles of ice, one hundred feet by sixty feet, and were estimated to contain nearly twenty five tons each. If favorable weather prevailed, these huge piles sometimes remained until summer.
According to an early historian, visiting the lake while the cutting was in progress was an interesting trip. The ice was first laid off into squares by an instrument called a marker, and seams were cut several inches deep along the marked lines by an ice plow pulled by a team of horses. Hand saws were then used to cut across these seams at the proper distance, and then the breaking was completed by another tool.
Strips of ice, 22 inches by approximately eight feet, were pulled over to the slide, a grapnel attached, and the slab pulled up the slide by horse power. It was then separated into squares and placed upon the platform for loading.
In 1873 the price of the ice plows was one hundred dollars each, the markers going for eighty dollars.
The historian wrote: "The company must have been paying out at least one thousand dollars a week, a nice thing for Crown Point in these close times."
The ice industry at Cedar Lake had its start soon after the Monon Railroad appeared along the western shore in 1882, when many large ice houses were built between the rail line and the lake.
Peter Howkinson came to the Cedar Lake area and saw the fine prospect of the ice industry, built an ice house and machinery, and realized the fine shipping to the city available on the nearby railroad. Howkinson sold what was left of his ice barns and machinery after a serious fire destroyed part of them. His business was sold to the Knickerbocker Ice Co. of Chicago.
By 1890, after traveling from Chicago to look at the ice cutting business at the lake, the Armour brothers, Phillip and Jonathan Sr., purchased land for their operation. The land once belonged to the family of early historian Rev. T.H. Ball. The new company soon supplied ice to both the Armour and the Swift Meat Packing Companies of Chicago, as well as to many other buyers.
An average of 150 men made up the work force on good working days, a force made up of many local men needing to add to their income, and also men brought from Chicago by some of the firms, all working for about five dollars a long day.
One of the bigger companies arriving to get into the business in the early 1900's was the John Shedds Consumers Ice Co., who sometimes shared some of the living quarters and work facilities with other ice companies. At that time, some of the machinery was steam powered and not quite as primitive as those days at Fancher Lake, though we read that the hand tools remained much the same all the way up to the 1930's.
In the coldest winters, the ice sometimes was more than 20 inches thick, and the big slabs had to be kept moving in the water with poles to keep them from becoming frozen tight once more.
Marsh grass was hauled from the town of Shelby on the Monon railway cars and used between the blocks of ice stored in huge barns, or sometimes sawdust from sawmills and factories was used. Cork sometimes lined the barns.
Some of the big ice barns were destroyed by lightning, and at one time debris from the fire fell upon the tracks to hold up the trains for a time.
John G. Shedd (1850-1926), mentioned before, a man who had interests in many of the ice companies, was called "a mighty fine man," and was the donor of three million dollars to finance the world famous Shedd Aquarium on Lake Michigan's shore at Chicago.
Among the other ice cutting companies at Cedar Lake, many of the local landowners took part through the years, and after a court battle, a decision was made that all lake front property owners could cut ice only to the center of the lake out from their property.
In the 1920's many of the larger companies from Chicago went out of business due to electric refrigeration, and many of the barns were dismantled.
The Armour company sold its barns to Chris and Harry Lassen to build the Resort Hotel on the east side of the lake. Many area homes were built partly with lumber given away free by the companies.
But still one company came to Cedar Lake to cut ice: the Miller Ice Co. of Chicago Heights. Before helping to start a new enterprise on the east side of the lake, that of making manufactured ice, Miller invented a new and unusual way of cutting ice. It was a Harley-Davidson motorcycle mounted on a wooden framed glider, the back wheel removed and replaced with a circular saw! The saw moved the sled as it sawed the ice into squares.
For a time business was good at the big ice manufacturing building built by Cass Surprise at the stoplight on Morse Street, but soon even the small ice companies were disappearing, the demand for ice was gone, and the more modern electrical (and gas) refrigeration had taken over. No more was seen the sign in the house window telling the ice man the amount needed each delivery.
Much of the information about the Cedar Lake Ice Industry came from the fine writings of Cedar Lake historian Beatrice Horner Castrogiovanni, author of the 1987 Cedar Lake history book Once Again, It Will Live. The title gives an answer to the question on the front cover of Rev. Timothy Ball's book (written 1880) The Lake of the Red Cedars -- Will it Live?
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