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Ice Harvesting


In the days before refrigeration, one important winter task was ice harvesting. While today’s icehouses are associated with fishing, a hundred years ago, icehouses were insulated buildings in which ice was packed in sawdust; if the sawdust was dry enough, the ice would keep throughout an entire summer without refrigeration.

The Fargo-Detroit Ice Company was formed in the late 1880s to supply ice to citizens, businesses and to the railroads. Each winter, workers braved the elements to harvest as much as 200,000 tons of ice from Detroit Lake in Minnesota. Blocks were cut by hand, and then hauled to town in horse-drawn sleighs. Known as cakes, these blocks were two feet wide, three feet long and weighed about 400 pounds apiece.

A good portion of the company’s ice helped railroads keep perishables from spoiling enroute to Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, Washington, Florida and throughout the Dakotas.

The Fargo-Detroit Ice Company stayed in business until 1970, when boxcars were transformed by electric refrigeration.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm