Editor's Note: This article is part of a regular monthly series on the history of Webster City, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser.
A warm winter, such as the one we have just experienced, would have created a supply crisis for the ice dealers of Webster City. Ice men need continual sub-zero weather to freeze the Boone River to the preferred 12- to 18-inch depth to produce their commodity. This year, the dealers could not have harvested a crop. That's probably the reason many of the early day suppliers were also involved in other business ventures.
The ensuing summer ice shortage would have hampered food preservation for businesses and families. But for the kids of Webster City it would have meant no ice cold lemonade, an extraordinary summer time treat at the turn of the 20th century.
- Daily Freeman-Journal photos by Nancy Kayser
The Clark/Zublin ice house ruins still stand along the the Boone River Recreational Trail near Nokomis Park. Viewed from the river, the three loading doors are still visible.
Our pioneer ancestors used cold springs, well houses, cellars, caves and their own private ice houses, cooled by the ice cakes they harvested from the river, to help preserve the foods they ate. As the city populations grew, a need for a reliable supply of ice developed and the sale of harvested ice cakes became a lucrative, but labor intensive, business.
The first ice houses in Webster City probably developed from the meat and produce houses. Their need to preserve the products they bought locally for resale required a continuous supply of ice in the warmer months. Selling their extra ice to the public helped increase profits.
The Boone River provided that supply of ice, free of charge except for labor costs. It was not an easy harvest as it had to be accomplished in a short amount of time under cold and sometimes dangerous conditions for the men and animals involved. The harvesters also had to depend entirely on the weather for the quality and quantity of their product. Too little snow cover or too much freeze and thaw yielded honey-combed ice blocks, which hampered its storage length and cooling abilities
Harvest of ice blocks could begin as soon as below zero temperatures froze the river to a solid depth of 12 inches, but workers tried to wait for the deeper ice. Using teams of horses and mules, the harvest crew would blade the snow off the ice to create an even top. The ice mass was marked off to cut blocks of ice about 22-inches wide by 32-inches long. These blocks were sawed by hand up until about 1900 when power equipment became available.
The cut blocks floated to the river's edge where teamsters hauled them on sleds to be hoisted up and stacked in the businesses and ice houses. In good years, the ice companies were able to harvest enough ice to supply the city and to ship box car loads of cut blocks to other cities and to fill contracts with the railroads.
By the end of the 1890s, Webster City ice men began building specially designed ice houses to preserve their crop. The concrete buildings, some with solid and some with hollow thick walls, could be stacked high with the ice blocks. Straw or sawdust was packed around the blocks as they were stored. Rye straw was preferred as oat straw was said to impart a yellow color to the ice. This method would keep the product solid, hopefully until the next winter began.
An article in the February 1910 Webster City Tribune estimated that the two main ice suppliers Up-River Ice Company owned by Zublin and Garth, and the Artesian Well Creamery owned by R. G. Clark had harvested more than 4,000 tons of ice for the local supply during January and February of that year. With a shrinkage thought to be around 20 percent, the paper postulated that the city used about 3,200 tons of ice a year.
Seven ice trucks
When the warm weather rolled around the ice companies put their ice wagons, usually pulled by mules in the early days, on the streets. In 1931, the Freeman Journal boasted that there were seven ice trucks and wagons in operation around the city.
The ice man delivered 25 to 100 pound blocks to residents for use in their ice boxes. He carried the large cubes, secured by tongs, over his shoulder to the ice box sliding the new cake in the top part of the insulated chest. He chipped any remaining ice into small pieces to pack around the new cake.
Housewives had mixed feelings about the delivery of ice. They loved the luxury of ice to aid in keeping food safe to feed their families, but they hated the mud and sawdust the delivery man tracked on their clean kitchen floors when making his rounds. Children, on the other hand, found great joy on a hot summer's day of following the ice man down the street in hopes of snagging a bit of cool ice.
There were several ice companies in Webster City but the best known ones were the Artesian Well Creamery owned by R. G. "Russ" Clark and the Up-River Ice Company started by Clarence L. Zublin. The Up-River ice company boasted in their numerous newspaper ads that their ice was of the purest quality because it was taken from the river above the city sewer plant. Both firms started about 1886.
Ice storage houses from all the companies were scattered throughout the city, edging the banks of the Boone River starting near the Nokomis park area going all the way down to the old Chase Mill dam site. The first buildings were made of wood, but were soon replaced by the concrete units.
The massive concrete structures built by the Up-River Ice Company just east of the bridge on the White Fox Road were utilized for many years by the Tolle family in their auto business.
Technology and a robust economy doomed the local ice companies and their Boone River ice product. Electric powered refrigerators, which became more affordable after World War II, replaced the ice box. Technology allowed commercial ice making plants to flourish, providing a reliable and more hygienic supply of ice to consumers everywhere.
So by the end of the 1940s, the last remaining ice man in Webster City, Edwin Garth of Zublin and Garth's Up-River Ice Company retired. He had joined his father-in-law Clarence L. Zublin in his ice business almost fifty years earlier. The company's downtown supply office at 723 Seneca Street has been preserved by Maureen Seamans for use as her ceramic art studio, where marks from the ice picks are still visible on the wall.
The Boone River Recreational Trail, at marker 0.2 near the Nokomis Park entrance, preserves the ruins of the R. G. Clark ice house which was also used by the Zublin group after 1920. The remaining walls are fourteen inches thick five inches of concrete on each side of a four inch insulating space reinforced with wire. One can only guess what was originally packed into the open space to keep the building cool. Three tall openings at the back of building were probably used to load the building with the ice cakes as they were hauled from the river. A rusted metal loading chute lies at the top of an incline from the edge of the Boone River. The area around and behind the concrete remains is relatively free of native grasses and weeds, leading one to surmise that many years of packing by horse hooves keeps the ground from sprouting vegetation.