IDAHO HISTORY: Ice was harvested, not manufactured, in early Idaho


Ice has been an indispensable commodity in the life of Idaho towns from their earliest days, especially in long, hot summers when it was needed most. Without ice there could have been no ice cream, and no cold beverages, even on the hottest days, and patrons of the Territory's many saloons could not have enjoyed an iced drink or a cold beer at any price.

In January 1865, a news item in the Idaho World of Idaho City tells us how a summer without ice was avoided: "Ice, Ice. Cunningham & Roberts are again filling their ice house, and will have an abundance for the ensuing season. Much obliged for past favors, and hope for a continuation of the same." (As was common at the time, editors took payment in kind rather than in cash for mentioning a product.)

An ice house was a heavily insulated building in which ice harvested from fresh water ponds in winter was packed in sawdust or straw until taken out as needed as the weather warmed. Harvesting the ice began when it was 6 to 8 inches thick and strong enough to bear the weight of men with ice saws 5 or 6 feet in length. They cut it into chunks of manageable size and pushed it around with long spiked poles, similar to those used by loggers on river drives. The blocks were then lifted out of the water and hauled to an ice house.

John Lemp, German-born Boise brewer, ran this advertisement in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman starting on May 20, 1869, and continuing through the summer months: "GOOD SOLID ICE, Having put up an excellent article of ice last winter, I am now ready to supply customers on short notice and reasonable terms. Orders left at the Boise Brewery Saloon opposite the Overland Hotel or at Boise Brewery, upper end of Main Street will be promptly attended to." Lemp ran a similar ad every summer thereafter for several years.

The Statesman informed its readers regularly on the state of the ice trade, as it did on July 20, 1872: "It takes three ice wagons to keep Boise City supplied with ice." Ice boxes were standard equipment in family kitchens well into the 20th century, as many readers will remember. A tray under the box collected the water as the block in the ice compartment melted. If not emptied daily, it could overflow onto the kitchen floor, doing some damage and fraying the nerves of the owner.

Before electric refrigerators replaced ice boxes, the ice man made the rounds of residential areas driving a horse-drawn wagon or a truck. Householders displayed a card in a window facing the street, its orientation telling the ice man the size of block wanted, typically 25 or 50 pounds. He then cut the desired-size piece from a larger one with an ice pick, hoisted it with big tongs to his leather-padded shoulder and delivered it to the house. Neighborhood children took this opportunity to pick up any small chips on the floor of the vehicle and pop them into their mouths.

In 1890 the amount of ice harvested by Jan. 10 was estimated to be more than 2,000 tons, and more was still being packed into the ice houses. By 1893 the demand for ice had exceeded the supply, as more of it was used to ice railroad cars carrying Boise Valley fruit to Butte, Mont., and Denver.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email

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