“Ice for Everybody: Lake Erie and America’s Ice Harvesting Industry,” open through Feb. 25 at the Rutherford B.Hayes‘ museum in Fremont, offers an interesting glimpse into the Lake Erie ice industry’s prominence in establishing the nation’s perishable foods markets and the difficult, dangerous work required to harvest ice.
The cool exhibit (sorry, I couldn’t resist) draws heavily on the work of Sandusky photographer Ernst Niebergall, who spent half a century documenting the lives of everyday folks and places along the lake’s southern shoreline. “Sandusky Bay ice tended to freeze very thick every year and you could count on it,” explains Kevin Moore, associate curator of artifacts. “It was a natural spot for the industry to pop up. Sandusky Bay was known for having very clean ice commonly referred to as ‘plate glass ice.’”
The exhibit features a vintage refrigerator or ice-box as it was once known, dozens of photographs of ice harvesting on the bay and a collection of tools used in the trade. That included cleated horse shoes so horses could walk on ice without falling as well as saws, picks, tongs and other specialized tools.
The rise of ice, in conjunction with ice-boxes, gave everyday Americans the ability to store perishable foods and enjoy foods they may not have normally had access to. It also paved the way for the national meat-packing industry. Most importantly, readily available ice gave us ice cream. Yep. And beverages, including beer, could be enjoyed cold.
One of the largest ice companies was The Wagner Lake Ice and Coal Co. “They made more money on ice than they did on coal,” Moore says.
A video features some local old-timers recalling the days of the ice delivery men and ice-boxes. Unfortunately for those harvesting ice on Lake Erie and elsewhere, new-fangled refrigeration technology put an end to ice harvesting just after the turn of the century — except for a few brief years during World War I, when the government encouraged the return to lake ice in an effort to conserve electricity for the war effort.
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