- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Aurora Historical Society Executive Director John Jaros and AHS Board President Mary Clark Ormond. All photos are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.
This holiday season, as you pop one of those stylish new ice globes into your favorite drink, or chill that champagne in an ice bucket, spare a thought for the history of ice in the home.
Because ice was not always just magically there when you opened your freezer door
In fact, while you might have had, in the 1800s and early 1900s, an icebox in your pantry or lean-to to keep your meat and dairy fresher, how the frozen stuff got in there was a long, cold story that could have taken an entire year to unfold and involved plenty of human and equine muscle, wicked-looking hand saws, conveyor belts, wagons, mountains of straw, and an awful lot of cold feet. And cold hooves, too.
In the 19th century, supplying ice was a big business all over the U.S., and nowhere more so than in Aurora, IL, where a fine river and a large urban population combined to create a flourishing market.
One of many local ice companies, although certainly not the first, was founded in 1869 by German immigrant Fred Schaub and under John Kinley’s later ownership grew to an impressive operation at the foot of Cedar Street able to store several thousand tons of ice and distribute it year-round using a fleet of 4 wagons.
Ice was no more and no less than a winter crop in Aurora. The harvest provided welcome employment for local farmers and laborers, despite the discomforts of the weather and the constant risk of man or beast falling into the water.
Although it required no sowing, it was as subject to the vagaries of the weather as any summer crop and two successive years of good ice was considered a fortunate run of luck.
How Cold Was It?
In a cold winter, the Fox might freeze to well over 2 feet thick and even in milder winters the ice would be several inches thick. An ideal season created 12 to 16 inches of ice depth, strong enough to support the necessary teams of horses and men.
The first step in ice harvesting was to use a horse-drawn scraper to remove any snow. Dimensions were calculated, and heated augers were sunk into the ice to mark out the field. Then, using an ice plow and skills perfected during spring crop planting, long straight rows were scored in a few inches deep, followed by perpendicular scoring to create a grid pattern
The blocks defined in this way would then be cut by hand using a special long ice saw. The blocks, weighing approximately 200 pounds apiece, could then be maneuvered by picks into a channel of open water and floated along to a ramp or conveyor belt and muscled into a storehouse and covered with multiple layers of hay, sawdust or other material that did not conduct heat from the earth or the air.
Although this retarded melting, it did little ensure the sanitariness of the product. The proximity of hardworking horses further complicated efforts at cleanliness and special workers were assigned to attend to the ground conditions.
Although much of the Fox River ice was loaded into box cars and sent to Chicago, some was kept local, stored in long, low wooden ice houses near the river.
Ice that was well-stacked and packed could last for up to two years. Thus, even throughout the warmer months Aurorans were assured of a steady supply of ice, brought to them by the ice company of their choice.
Deliveries began early in the morning, when the ice man would load up his wagon with blocks of ice and drive his route about town, peering at signs in kitchen windows to learn how much ice was wanted that day.
Working from the back of his wagon he would chip off smaller blocks, perhaps 25 or 50 pounds each, and carry them, using heavy tongs, straight to the homeowner’s ice box.
There is a charming glimpse of the ice business in a schoolbook by Aurora teacher and author Mabel O’Donnell.
One of her Alice and Jerry progressive readers, beautifully illustrated by the sisters Florence and Margaret Hoopes of Philadelphia, includes a summer scene in which a boy jumps on the back of an ice wagon to refresh himself with ice chips.
Since O’Donnell’s fictional town of Hastings Mills is entirely a thinly-disguised Aurora, the *Commercial Ice Company* in the book Engine Whistles is almost certainly the real-life Consumer Ice Company once located at 161 S. View St.,
Inexorably the advent of electric refrigeration eliminated the need for river ice and delivery wagons, and our second harvest, winter ice, became a thing of the past which we merely wonder at today.
This holiday, when you hear the tinkle of ice cubes, raise your glass to the intrepid folks who used to cut ice on the Fox River. Don’t let their memories just melt away.
Read The Kane County History Series!
- 1850-1925 Geneva — When Penmanship Was Mightier Than The Sword
- St. Charles Museum Site — From Serving Gas To Preserving History
- Elgin Puts 3,500 Priceless Photos Online
- Batavia-Inspired Miniatures Thrilled a Nation
- Aurora’s Maud Powell, World Famous Violinist
- Waxing Nostalgic on Geneva’s WGSB, WFXW
- American Doughboys of WWI — in St. Charles, IL
- Experience High-Tech History at April 21 ‘Open Elgin’ Event
- Batavia, IL — ‘Windmill Capital of The World’
- Meet Andy Aurora, Man About Town
- Celebrating The 50th Anniversary of 9-1-1 in Geneva
- Blue Goose And Evergreen Pub — ‘Shop Local’ 90 Years In The Making
- Elgin Is The Apple of Illinois Bicentennial’s Eye
- Nordens Soner And Batavia’s Swedish Society
- Aurora’s Melting Pot ‘Yearning To Breathe Free’
- Candles, Timing Devices, Phonographs And The ‘Life Cup’ — All Things Made in Geneva
- Hotel Baker, The ‘Masterpiece’ of The Fox Valley
- Elgin Celebrates Our Once-Burgeoning Dairy Business
- Reflections of Batavia’s Quarry Beach Pool
- Aurora’s Mabel O’Donnell, Author of “Alice And Jerry’ Books
- As Alice (Davis) Says, ‘Schools Out For Summer!’
- Elgin Watches, ‘The World’s Standard’
- Aurora Silverplate a Symbol of Good Taste
- Women Leaders Played Huge Roles in Geneva
- Nationally Renowned Summer Camp in St. Charles
- The Harrowing Story of William Lynch, Elgin’s Civil War Brigadier General
- Batavia Powered The Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railway
- Corsets Doing Big Business in Aurora? Scandalous!
- One Block of Geneva Tells 1,001 Fantastic Stories
- St. Charles’ Evergreen Pub — The ‘Before’ Photos
- 1917-18 — When Elgin Artists Went to War
- Thomas Cleveland — Batavia’s Presidential Connection
- Do Your Wurst — Aurora Meat Markets Are ‘In’ Again
- Geneva Is The Place For Graveyards And Ghosts
- Visit Amelia Anderson At St. Charles’ North Side Cemetery
- Calling All Artists! … For a Cobblestone Reflection in Elgin
- Batavia’s 108-Year-Old Gazebo Still Lights The Way
- The Compelling, Tragic Story of Aurora’s Black WWI Hero Frank Boger
- Geneva History Museum Invites Artists To Celebrate Cultural Heritage
- Elgin’s Anson Clark Soared in The Great War … And Life
- What It Meant To Be a Patrol Boy and Louise White School
- ‘Men’s Night’ Christmas Shopping Was a 1950’s Aurora Phenomenon
- St. Charles Remembers Colson’s Christmas-Day Fire of ’33
- The Art of Elgin’s Cobblestone Reflections
- When Suffrage Met Prohibition in Batavia
- Geneva Presents The Art of The Fox River
- Blansford Astronomical Clock Is Aurora’s Treasure
- St. Charles Returns Family Heirlooms From WWII
- Museum Lands Painting By Elgin Artist Albert Kenney
- Cars Still Fixed at Historic Location in Downtown Batavia
- A Bird’s-Eye View of 19th Century Geneva
- Sheldon Peck: Kane County’s Connection To The Underground Railroad
- Elgin High School Celebrates 150 Years of ‘Education For All’
- Batavia’s Incredible Roller Skating History
- The Fabled History of Jewelry Stores in Geneva
- Astonishing Buried Treasure Discovered in Aurora Outhouse
- Lincoln Elementary School in St. Charles Celebrates 90 Years of Education
- Remembering Elgin High Grad, Renowned Composer Daniel Brewbaker, 1951 – 2017
- Meet Batavia’s Sharron Moran, LPGA Star, ‘Most Beautiful Golfer’ of 1966
- The Many Iterations of Geneva’s National Food Store
- The Burlington Zephyr — A ‘Silver Streak’ Through Aurora
- What IS That Thing in Downtown St. Charles?
- 18 Events, Limited-Edition Poster For Preservation Month in Elgin!
- Julius Amandus Anderson’s WWI Memorial Trapunto Banner
- Geneva’s Swedish Days Celebrates Its 70th Anniversary
- The Historic Drive To Save Aurora’s GAR Hall
- The Story of St. Charles’ Paddlewheel Riverboats
- Meet Elgin’s Legendary Marshal — Andrew Barclay Spurling
- Jackie DeShannon ‘Put A Little Love’ In Batavia
- Aurora’s William S. Hart, Cowboy Movie Star
- St. Charles’ First Settlers, One Lost, Found Again
- Discover The Elgin Stories All Around You
- Batavia’s WWI French Connection
- Amazing Stories Behind Geneva’s Extraordinary Parks
- Roots Aurora Seeks 2019 Nominations For Aurora Cultural Champions
- Newly Renovated Thompson Middle School Retains Memories of St. Charles High
- Elgin’s Bluff City Cemetery Memorializes City’s Past
- Batavia Connection to 1969 Moon Landing
- Geneva Company Made Huge Contribution to Art Deco
- East Vs. West 1914 — Aurora’s Greatest Football Game
- North, Union Cemeteries Are St. Charles’ Hallowed Grounds
- Elgin Temperance Crusaders Take Hatchet To Beer Fans
- Ever Heard of Clybourneville? (Hint: It’s Now in Batavia)
- Geneva Ghost Stories Rise From Former Hospital Site
- Aurora Tells The Cows To Shut Up
- Baby Face Nelson And 100 Years of St. Charles Boys School ‘Good, Bad And Ugly’
- Behold The Telegraph, Elgin’s First Digital Communication!
- Mary Bailey, Batavia’s Trailblazing Woman Lawyer
- Holiday Traditions, Historic Creche at Geneva History Museum
- Welcome To Thanksgiving Dinner at Aurora’s Tanner House
- St. Charles’ Whiskey Bend Signaled Boom Time For Taverns
- From Elgin Watch Cases To 4.2 Mortar Shells
- Lorraine James’ Art Leaves Lasting Impression on Batavia
- Geneva Remembers The Tornado of 1967
- New Year’s Calling in Aurora
- Newly Digitized Footage Documents Construction of St. Charles Municipal Building
- ‘New Year’s Calling’ in Aurora Was The Online Dating of Late 1800s
- A Woman’s Right To Vote — In Elgin
- How The Household Journal Came To Batavia
- Geneva’s East Side — From Dodson To Dog ‘N’ Suds
- On Leap Year, ‘She-Wolves of Aurora’ Have ‘Gender-Swapping Fun’
- Mary Todd Lincoln, Batavia Resident
- The Women Who Broke Codes at Riverbank Labs in Geneva
- Turn Around in Aurora And You’ll Bump Into a Luxembourger
- Geneva History Museum Offers COVID-19 Journal
- Aurora’s Amazing Family Portrait Exhibit ‘A Brilliant Idea’
- How St. Charles Survived The Spanish Flu in 1918
- Elgin Epidemics — COVID-19 Is Not The First To Bring Suffering, Sorrow
- Geneva Museum Passes Milestone
- Aurora’s African-American Police Officers
- Garner Family Is St. Charles’ Juneteenth Celebration Story
- Notable Black Americans From Elgin, IL
- Black Batavians Played Key Roles in History
- Geneva History Museum Reveals Archive Redesign
- Family Secrets — Historian Finds 1866 ‘I Love … ‘ Message Scratched in Tanner House Window
- Cut Glass Was Booming During Roaring 20s in St. Charles
- Elgin Remembers Devastating Palm Sunday 1920 Tornadoes
- Batavians Find Treasure in 150-Year-Old Privies
- Geneva Hosts Virtual Night at The Museum
- Visit Aurora’s Tanner House — With a Click of The Mouse
- Elgin Cemetery Walk Is Virtual Travel Through Time
- James Prindle Jr.’s Roll Top Desk Returns To Batavia
- 60 Years Ago, Kennedy Campaigned in Geneva
- Aurora’s 1894 Central Station Proud Home of Regional Fire Museum
- Meet The Doctors Who Helped Shape St. Charles
- Secret Symbolism in Elgin’s Bluff City Cemetery
- Meet The Doctors Who Shaped St. Charles’ History
- Batavia Inventor Paul Hassler And His Arithstyle Adding Machine
- The ‘Background’ on Geneva’s Famous Creche
- Aurora Soldier’s Diary Reveals Gripping Story of War, Love, Pain And Heroism
- St. Charles’ Delnor Hospital — A Thanksgiving Gift in 1940
- Meet Elgin’s Mary Muirhead of The WWI Army Nurse Corps
- Geneva’s Holiday Giving Tradition Continues Despite Pandemic
Sign Up To KCC E-Newsletter