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Native son retells story of local ice harvests

WORTHINGTON -- Most people today equate Lake Okabena with windsurfing, jet skiing and fishing, but at one time, the lake served as one of the major sources of ice for railroad cars transporting perishables, meat processing facilities and even the small ice boxes people had in their homes.

This month marks the 55th anniversary of the last ice harvest on Lake Okabena -- a bit of trivia one of Worthington's native sons is betting that few recall. Monday night, Tim Graf will return to Worthington to present a history lesson on the local ice harvests. Offered through community education, the program is still open to registrants by either calling 376-6105 or registering online at

Graf has long been interested in history, but it was the fact that his grandparents, Alvin and Marget Graf, ran a local ice harvesting business from 1932 through 1943 that piqued his interest and prodded his research.

The semi-retired Burnsville resident is considering writing a book about the history of ice harvesting and, in the meantime, takes part in numerous hands-on ice harvesting demonstrations for school groups through living history events.

Graf's grandparents operated the ice harvesting business in Worthington during a time of great growth. The concept of Americans using lake ice to keep foods cold dates back to the early 1800s in Boston, Mass., Graf said. By the late 19th century, harvest had begun on both of Worthington's lakes -- Okabena and the no-longer-present East Lake Okabena.

"The ice business was a major industry from the beginning of Worthington up until 1951," said Graf, adding that ice was once referred to as a crop the grasshoppers could not destroy here on the prairie.

People came from as far as Kansas City, Mo., and the Oklahoma Territory to harvest ice on Lake Okabena -- partly because it was one of the southernmost lakes they came to that produced a quality ice, and partly because of the railroad's cooperation to construct a rail line that extended from the lake's shoreline.

"It was an ideal location for getting ice," Graf said. "With two lakes, there was more than enough capacity to fill all their orders."

Harvesting ice, no matter what lake it's on, is a risky venture. In the olden days, workers moved the ice via an open water channel. Splashing water made the surface extremely slippery, and the danger was only magnified at night, when people worked by the light of a kerosene lantern.

"They were moving 250- to 300-pound blocks of ice," Graf said. Once the ice reached shore, it was transported by a conveyor system up the hill, and then gravity carried it down the hill and into the ice house, where workers busily slid them into place.

Because of the seasonal nature of the work, many of the men were carpenters or farmers. The ice harvest lasted about four to six weeks, and usually began in mid-January.

"It was a very demanding job," Graf said. "In the late '30s, you probably needed up to 90 people on the ice harvest crew."

In his years of research, Graf has amassed a number of items relating to ice harvest -- from not only Worthington, but across the U.S.

"It just kind of became a hobby," he said.

He now owns tools like ice tongs and ice picks used during the harvest, as well as a scale used by the ice delivery man that helped him determine the value of the ice he sold. Graf also has a variety of ice hooks, breaker bars and tools used to cut the ice loose from the lake.

"Before the 1920s, the tools that actually cut the ice on the lake were horse-drawn," said Graf, adding that he also has some horse-drawn plows people used in the harvesting process.

In 1951, the last year ice was harvested from Lake Okabena, only 4,500 tons was taken from the lake. That compared to prior harvests that had reached up to 40,000 tons of ice taken in one year. In all, said Graf, more than a million tons of ice was harvested from Lake Okabena for local and export use between 1872 and 1951.

The advent of electric refrigerators during and after World War II helped bring about the demise of ice harvests on Lake Okabena. Still, a small ice supply was made in an artificial ice plant located on the triangular-shaped piece of land near the bike bridge on Lake Street and Second Avenue. The ice business reached certain death in 1956, when robbers set the icehouses on fire for a diversion as they stole the safe from the Sav-Mor grocery store.

Graf will have many more stories to share about the local ice harvest during his presentation Monday night at Prairie Elementary in Worthington.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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