By Gregory James

In the Twenty-First Century we rarely consider ice, except, perhaps, in the depths of winter when frozen water is something we just want to melt as quickly as possible. But a hundred years ago ice played an important economic role in making Milwaukee into the city it became.

In the decades before the Civil War and though the end of the Nineteenth Century, Milwaukee experienced rapid growth. Immigrants poured in from around the world, especially from German speaking countries. By 1900, fully one third of Wisconsin’s population had been born in Germany. They were a generally industrious and well educated population, And they brought a traditional fondness for beer. That taste for beer combined with a healthy helping of good geographic luck, and the result was a city made famous by its frothy brew. To this day people around the world associate Milwaukee with the brewing industry. And all because these Germans happened to settle where three large rivers converged, inland lakes abounded, and winters were cold. Very, very cold.

Milwaukee Public Library / Historic Photos Collection

Milwaukee Public Library / Historic Photos Collection

Of course, beer-brewing immigrants settled in many other places, too. But brewers in Milwaukee held a particular advantage. Brewing works best when temperatures are cool. And steamy hot summer evenings are more enjoyable if a cool beer is at hand. Ice made summer beer production possible and an ice-farming industry was born a short stroll from our front doors.

Milwaukee’s first ice harvests occurred in the waters of the Menomonee Valley, but those operations were soon abandoned in favor of Milwaukee River ice fields, particularly above the old North Avenue dam. The dam kept waters consistently deep, and every winter deep ice formed. Waters below the dam may have been deep enough, but upstream was much cleaner in the early days.

Horse-drawn sledges scored the ice into large uniform rectangles, leaving etched lines crisscrossing the river’s surface. These lines were then cut by workers with saws and floated to ramps where the blocks could be hauled into storage. Ice blocks remained frozen for months once stacked in storage buildings and insulated with sawdust. Throughout the year, horse-drawn delivery carts could deliver to the iceboxes in homes as well as to breweries, and the city’s burgeoning meat packing industry. By 1890 more than 300,000 tons of ice were locally produced in a single winter.

You can see remnants of this old industry if you know where to look. Schlitz Brewing, one of the city’s largest beer companies, had major ice requirements. To help satisfy their needs, a large ice harvesting and storing facility was built a block and a half north of Locust Street on the west side of the river. The Schlitz ice storage buildings are now long gone but if you stand on the bridge and look north you’ll see the remains of an old ice dam the company built to raise the level of the water in winter. It looks a bit like a low waterfall and is especially visible this time of the year when the river runs low. Stroll north from Riverside Park and you can walk out on part of the old structure to examine logs, boards, and iron spikes all still in place. It was built to last!

Ice MKE River GJames

Photo by Gregory James

While Schlitz harvested and stored their own ice, many companies relied on other companies that specialized in ice harvesting, storage, and delivery. There were many such companies competing with one another for market share, and this competition led to the Great Ice War of 1901.

John Kopmeier, one of the city’s many German immigrants, formed the Wisconsin Lakes Ice Company in 1849, three years after Milwaukee was incorporated. By 1890 his son John Henry Kopmeier had taken over and had bought out many of the city’s other large ice businesses and was operating under the name Wisconsin Lakes Ice and Cartage Company. The firm was handling huge quantities of ice every year and John Henry became one of Milwaukee’s leading citizens, and among the wealthiest.

By the turn of the century, Milwaukee’s river system had gained a reputation as a rather fetid water source. Sensing an opportunity, an upstart firm called the Pike and North Lakes Ice Company formed with the intent of providing cleaner ice by shipping it by rail from distant clean lakes. All seemed to go well for the new company as they built storage infrastructure and prepared for production. But somehow they failed to realize the need to purchase land between their ice-harvesting operations and the railroad. Others were paying closer attention, however, and agents for Kopmeier’s Wisconsin Lakes Ice and Cartage acted quickly. They purchased the property between the new ice farm and the rail line, denying Pike and North access to the railroad. Having invested large sums in a now useless ice harvesting operation, the owners of the Pike and North Lakes were more than a little upset. They went to war.

Wisconsin Lakes operated several harvesting sites on the Milwaukee River. One of these was along the west side of the river just south of today’s Gordon Park. Foundations of that structure can be found in the woods to this day. Another set of harvest and storage structures was located on the east side of the river on the site of today’s Wisconsin Paperboard Corporation, just north of North Avenue.

The North Avenue dam kept waters high year around. In summer recreational boating was common and river excursions carried traffic up and down the river with stops at beer gardens and swimming schools along the way. The Pike and North Lakes Ice Company decided on a new kind of recreational boating – winter “recreational boating”. They made a deal with the captain of a small steam ship called the “Julius Goll” to pilot their “excursions”. Beginning in January, the ship steamed slowly up and down the river, breaking ice along the way and ruining the ice crop. A festive atmosphere was encouraged by the presence of a German brass band that played on deck during the cruise. However, passions flared and police were required to prevent combatants from coming to fatal blows as defenders from Wisconsin Lakes, many of whom were Polish immigrants living nearby, tried to stop the steamer. Newspaper reports at the time mention that many a combatant suffered bruising and countless others experienced chilly baths during the conflict, but nobody seems to have been seriously injured. The Julius Goll suffered serious damage from one of its many encounters with large ice blocks, but the ship didn’t sink. No more ice was harvested that year.

But times were already changing, and the ice business was threatened by more than ice-breaking watercraft. Chicago companies were now manufacturing large amounts of ice in freezing machines and while the product was often just as unhealthy as harvested ice, production was more reliable. By the time World War I arrived the industry was nearly finished. Then, in the winters of 1920 and 1921, an ice farmer’s “drought” occurred when unseasonably warm winters made ice harvesting impossible. Within a couple more years the ice harvesting industry was gone.

The Wisconsin Lakes Ice and Cartage Company eventually became Hometown, Inc. and added heating oil and auto service stations to the business. They continued to manufacture and sell ice until 2005 when Hometown’s packaged ice division was sold to a Canadian ice company. UWM’s Cambridge Commons residence hall now sits where their corporate headquarters had been.

More interesting information about the ice industry along the Milwaukee River, and many other historical insights about Milwaukee, can be found on Carl Swanson’s very interesting blog: “Milwaukee Notebook”. Google it!