The Ice Industry in Iowa

Before the arrival of modern refrigeration, people had to depend on ice boxes to keep food cool. These ice boxes were designed to hold both food and large blocks of ice. Providing these blocks of ice was an important industry in Iowa during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ice Harvesting

Ice harvesting crews, Harpers Ferry, circa1945Usually around the first of January local and “seasonal” ice harvesting crews began working rivers and lakes. Various tools and methods were used for cutting and removing the ice, including large saws and horse drawn cutters. By the 1900s workers used motor driven saws. Ice was then taken to the ice house to be stored until summer. The ice house was a double walled brick or wood building where the ice was covered with layers of hay or sawdust to keep it from melting.

When the weather turned warm, the demand for ice began. The ice wagon, delivering ice door to door, was a common sight in Iowa towns. The large demand for ice made it one of the top commodities handled by the shipping industry.

Risky Business

While ice harvesting was a very profitable business, it was also risky. In addition to the potential for physical danger to employees, there was the chance that not enough ice would be stored to meet the summertime demand—or that a warm winter might produce a limited supply.

Modern day refrigeration techniques became available in the early 1900s. By the 1930s the nearly universal availability of electric refrigerators greatly reduced the need for the ice industry, and therefore it quickly declined.

The End of an Era

With the coming of electric refrigerators the ice industry changed. No longer did people cut ice from the lakes and rivers of Iowa to keep their food fresh. The men and women who made a living in the ice industry of the early 1900s were forced to find new means of making a living. But for many years the ice industry provided a good living for families across the state.


  • Hoppe, Emilie. "'Cold as Ice': Communal Amana Winter Harvest" Iowa REC News 39 (March 1985).
  • "Ice House Museum" Cedar Falls Historical Society Home Page. 2002.
  • Volk, Stephen. "The Ice Harvest" Palimpsest 62 (1981): 90-96.
Elements of this article adapted from Iowa Historical Moment Fact Sheets, 1992, State Historical Society of Iowa
© State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines, Iowa



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