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Worthington 150: Ice was major crop from Lake Okabena for seven decades

Worthington was a natural for the natural ice industry. The railroads were here. The lake was here.

Horse power used
Teams of horses are used to assist with ice harvest on the shore of Lake Okabena.
Nobles County Historical Society
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WORTHINGTON — Harvest is a beautiful word which stirs visions of golden fields of grain, frost on the pumpkin and full moons.

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Worthington was a natural for the natural ice industry. The railroads were here. The lake was here.

But for 60 years in Worthington, the word harvesting also meant the cold but exciting winter struggle of men and horses and machines against the frozen bosom of Lake Okabena.

Ice harvesting was big business, a very important form of seasonal employment. It bought the groceries and paid the rent for many local families in winter months when farm work was at a standstill. A month or two of work on the ice field was one of the nicest Christmas presents many families could receive.

From photographs, we know an operation of some sort existed before 1890. Who started it and when are questions even the fine historian, A.P. Rose failed to mention in his History of Nobles County.

Pushing ice
Crews push ice chunks toward the conveyor belt as they harvest ice from Worthington's Lake Okabena.
Henry Blume

Why it happened is a question which can be answered. It happened because Worthington was a natural for the natural ice industry. The railroads were here. The lake was here.

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With the railroad tracks skirting the edge of the lake, there was no place any more favorable than Lake Okabena for loading and shopping those massive chunks of congealed water. Furthermore, Lake Okabena was one of the few clear water lakes in the entire area.

Ice harvesting started about Christmas time, depending on the whims and frigidity of the weather. Teams of horses scraped away the snow. The ice was marked in big blocks. A plow with a steel bar fitted with a series of sharp knives was used in the early years to cut grooves in the ice so the cakes were easier to tamp loose and float to shore.

Harvesting ice
Crews harvest ice from Lake Okabena in this undated file from the Nobles County Historical Society.

Power saws were used later. The screech of saw against ice echoed across the lake. Steam engines and trucks replaced horses. Loading equipment improved.

But basically, the struggle was the same: The ice had to be cut. Floated to shore. Loaded. It was hard work and dangerous work and lives were sometimes lost. Men now and then fell off the rafts of floating ice they guided with poles.

The overalls and jackets of the fur-capped men were frozen stiff when they stopped at the local pool hall after work for a warmer-upper. The frost of their breath was on their mustaches. Sometimes the horses’ breath froze over their nostrils making it hard to breathe. Then a driver had to stop and hold his hands over the horse’s nose to melt the frost.

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A system of chutes and conveyor belts was built and maintained for many years so ice could be hoisted over what is now South Shore Drive and loaded directly into railroad cars. There was a gap of about 100 feet between the lake and tracks which had to be bridged.

Site of the operation was where Karley’s Drive-In and market is located, extending southwest toward Heles Supply. Records at the Registrar of Deeds office show the land was first owned by Valentine B. Hoffman and then by Joseph Davis. Davis willed it to Hamline University, which owned the land from 1883 to 1902.

G.W. Patterson and Willia Ramage were the next owners. Both men were involved in the ice business but the beginnings preceded them by 12 or 15 years. It may have been Ed Pannell, an early auditor who ran a draying business, who started it. His name is written on the back of one of the old Buchan photos.

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In any case, by 1908, when William Stoutemyer became proprietor of the Worthington Transfer and Ice Company, it was a thriving business. Then the first of two major ice house fires occurred.

In June 1911, three large ice houses, 80- by 30 feet each, were totally destroyed by fire which originated from the spark of a train locomotive . The nearby city bathhouse was endangered. About half the ice, packed in sawdust, was saved. The loss was estimated at $10,000. Stouteyer had $500 in insurance.

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In the next few years to 1920, the property exchanged hands four times. Then came four owners who are all well remembered by local residents: Charles W. Guse who bought the business in 1920; Harry Butcher in 1926; Alvin Graf in 1932; and Lloyd Stowe in 1943.

Horse-rigs were replaced with a modern cutter that received very favorable mention in the local paper in 1921. Up to then, all the sawing had been done with a horse-drawn affair which was never too successful because the horseshoes chipped the cakes of ice.

Guse bought a gas-motor driven saw mounted on a steel sled, which was pushed by two men. Working around the clock in three shifts, crews did much of the work on the frozen field at night under lights. It was an exciting thing for little boys and sidewalk supervisors to watch.

During the ownership of Guse and Butcher, aout 25,000 tons of ice a year were removed from Lake Okabena. The Omaha railway contract averaged 10,000 tons and the rest was for local and area consumption. Towns as far away as Valley Springs, South Dakota and Paullina, Iowa, depended on Worthington for their ice supply in the 1920s.

Supplying the Worthington Creamery with ice was an important phase of the business too. The presence of the ice industry in fact, was a prime reason why the creamery came to be located here.

Under Graf’s ownership, the business continued to grow, reaching a peak about 1937, when 130,000 tons of ice were cut for the needs of railroad houses in Omaha and St. James, the creamery and the Worthington area. A crew of 120 men was at work then when the operation was going full blast.

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The Graf family, like the Butcher and Guse families before them, lived in the small house by the icehouse, which was built about 1912. Mrs. Graf was active in the business. She answered the phone, ran the cash and carry business, boarded many of the workers and sold Coolrator ice boxes. Small and frail appearing, Mrs. Graf often had to drag a 350-pound cake of ice into a truck. Customers could get ice right there from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 40 cents per hundred pounds.

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There were two tragic deaths at the site in the 1930s. Herert Vahlsing, 33, became tangled in a belt and shaft in 1937. Fellow worker Paul Schafer narrowly escaped. Two years later, 21-year-old LeRoy Stowe fell off an ice float when his guiding pole broke. He drowned.

By 1940, Graf had a fleet of nine trucks for delivery service and a car icing hoist mounted on a truck for loading refrigerated cars. The horses were gone and along with them went the glamour and excitement of following the ice man down the street.

In the 1940s, refrigeration came on strong and the need for natural ice diminished. Stowe set up an ice plant and eventually stopped shipping ice to the railroad houses.

Then, in 1956, a final chapter was written to the industry. Fire again broke out. Everything but the house, no longer occupied, was destroyed.

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