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Old Kenosha: Ice harvesting was a risky, dangerous job
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Old Kenosha: Ice harvesting was a risky, dangerous job

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One hundred years ago if a man was out on inland lakes in the winter, chances are it was with a pike pole or huge ice tongs in his hands, harvesting ice for one of the 10 ice companies that did business here.

From the 1880s well until the 1930s, our part of the world got ice from inland lakes right here in Kenosha County.

Thousands of men each year were employed in the work: In 1901 there were 3,000 employed in our county alone.

Area residents filled the needs of the ice companies with year-round laborers. Ice harvesting meant jobs and made an impact on the lake communities.

Cottage industries included blacksmith shops, boarding houses and livery stables. The hotels were filled with vacationers in the summer and imported ice workers in the winter.

Workers from Chicago

Every December or January, the ice companies needed to find more workers for the harvest, which was six to eight weeks in the dead of winter. Some were eager for employment, but the majority were from Skid Row in Chicago.

Many sources mention those “hobos” — men without families (many homeless) who were enticed by a warm bed and hearty meals — who showed up the first day with rags tied around their feet, hands jammed into pockets.

Like crewmen on seafaring ships, a few were shanghaied during a drunken spree and woke up to find themselves on a train headed for the lakes.

The vagrants came unprepared for work in brutal temperatures. Those without proper shoes and mittens were provided proper clothing by the companies. Those items were deducted from their wages, which were paid at the end of the season.

Ice houses a common sight

There were operations at one time or another at Twin Lakes (six houses on the shore of the two lakes), Powers Lake (four houses), Paddock Lake, Camp Lake, Center Lake, Hooker Lake, Montgomery Lake, Rock Lake, Cross Lake and Lake Benedict.

One account says there were 10 ice houses on spring-fed Silver Lake at one time; each would have been three- and four-stories high and more than 100 feet long.

These men did back-breaking work, sometimes in winter conditions that would make polar bears wince.

Death on ice

It was dangerous work. Frostbite was common.

An article in the Kenosha Evening News of Jan. 14, 1921 noted:

“A Chicago man whose name has not as yet been ascertained was found buried in a snowdrift in front of a resort at Camp Lake early Sunday morning.

“He had been working on the ice for the past week and was known only by his number.

“The man’s hands and feet were both frozen, and it was declared the condition of his feet was such that it might be necessary to amputate both of them.

“The suffering man was taken to the home of Dr. Becker at Silver Lake early Sunday morning, and he was given every possible care there. County Agent Russell H. Jones will have him taken to a hospital in Chicago just as soon as the trains are running. (The railroads were still clearing off the snow drifts from the tracks.)

“The man was unable to give any account of himself, and it is thought that he lost his way in the storm of Saturday night and lay buried in the snow during the entire night.”

When a worker slipped into the water, hypothermia was a possibility if fellow workers couldn’t come to his aid.

A Jan. 9, 1926, obituary relates the story of Ira White and his father-in-law Gustave Engberg, who drowned at the Tewes Ice Co. channel on Lake Marie.

They had been charged with keeping the long channel open during the night hours, and the pair never came home the following morning.

Their bodies were found drifting in different parts of the lake. Their car also was found in the water, and the evidence showed they had escaped the car and hung in the water, unable to pull themselves up on the ice.

No one heard their screams in the howling wind.

Fierce competition

Sometimes if the ice was thinner (18 to 24 inches thick was prime), competition between competing companies was fierce, with men patrolling with shotguns to protect what they considered their proper share of the ice.

Alva Paddock once told a story about a man’s body that was found between the layers of ice in a Paddock Lake ice house.

The man evidently had fallen in as the ice was being brought in and was very well preserved when his body was found the following summer.

No one ever claimed the body, and he was buried in an unmarked grave in a nearby cemetery.

Onward to Chicago

When the ice harvest ended, the imported workforce was paid, but not welcomed to stay in the lake communities or the city.

An article in the Jan. 20, 1910, Kenosha Evening News reported:

“The ice harvest in the western part of the county is nearly ended, and large delegates of the men who have been working on the ice are coming to Kenosha daily.

“The police officers are making an effort to keep the men moving on toward Chicago.”

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