It’s no secret that Hamilton County used to be mainly farmland and agriculture was a way of life for many county residents.
What you might not realize, however, is that harvest time didn’t stop in the fall when the frost was on the “punkin” and the fodder in the shock. During the 19th and very early 20th centuries, one of the area’s most important crops was harvested from the last half of December to about the middle of February.
I’m talking about ice.
Long before refrigerators and freezers came along, ice taken from local water sources like creeks, gravel pits and White River was a necessity, not only for businesses like meat markets and breweries, but for individuals who needed ice for their household ice boxes.
The clearest and best ice came from shallow, slow moving water. Pond ice could be used, but it was considered inferior because ponds lacked enough movement for proper aeration. Without aeration, the ice was often cloudy and holes would form in it, keeping it from cooling as well as a solid block.
While I couldn’t find a description of the ice harvesting process in the old local newspapers, I did run across one on the internet that I suspect is pretty close to what took place here.
According to that source, most of the necessary equipment was horse-drawn. The horses were fitted with special shoes to prevent them from slipping on the ice.
First, an “ice marker” was used to make shallow cuts to indicate the size of the blocks to be harvested. (Two-foot blocks seems to have been the norm.) Once that was accomplished, an “ice plow” would cut almost all the way through the ice. The final cutting was done by hand, by one or two people with a cross-cut saw.
The blocks were then floated out of the water by way of a channel hacked through the ice.
One of the best natural ice harvests in this area took place in 1893. That year one Noblesville group was said to have harvested 14,000 tons in three weeks. (In 15 to 20 degrees below zero, yet!)
Usually, the ice collected was from 8 to 10 inches thick, but the February 10, 1882 Ledger noted that Hen Thistlethwaite of the Sheridan area had harvested “a lot of ice out of the prairie this week, the ice was about four inches thick.”
When covered with sawdust or cut straw and carefully packed without air spaces between them, the blocks of ice would last throughout the hot summer months.
There were problems, though.
Mild winter weather like we’ve been experiencing lately was always dreaded because of the possibility it could lead to an “ice famine.”
Purity was another issue. In 1907 Noblesville city council member John Thom complained at one council meeting that the ice sold locally was dirty and unfit for consumption.
He may have had a point. Someone else present at the meeting noted that local businessman Leonard Wild had recently discovered a frog frozen in the ice in his ice box!
Between the ice famines and the purity concerns, mechanically manufactured ice eventually won out over natural ice. By the early 1890s, Noblesville had an artificial ice plant. Atlanta and Sheridan also had plants, but I’m unsure about dates for them.
I can’t remember ever seeing ice thick enough to harvest on White River during my lifetime. There may be a good reason for that. Garrick Mallery told me several years ago that water vented by the power plant prevents ice from forming in the river like it used to.
Notable Nineties Update: Kermit Ross has added Mary Ida Lu Ross Farb. Congratulations, Mary Ida Lu!
Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears each Wednesday in The Times. Contact her at