Fields of Ice

by Jonathan Wright
Photos courtesy of Peoria Public Library Local History Collection

Will it snow this winter? Will the river freeze over? These questions once had serious implications for some Peoria-area laborers.

“Nearly one thousand men will find employment on the enormous ice fields of Peoria Lake,” went one 1912 account, “and in this respect the severe cold spell is the greatest blessing of the winter for the laboring man.” They were paid 20 cents an hour and packed nearly 5,000 tons of ice each day.

Prior to refrigeration and ice on demand, the “ice crop” was harvested from the river. Peoria’s ice trade dates back to 1837, when a pair of enterprising butchers began harvesting ice to preserve their meats, selling off the surplus to a few well-to-do families and boats on the river. Looking for something to do when the river was closed to navigation, Henry Detweiller, the famed steamboat captain, turned the trade into a full-blown business in 1854; he and business partner Peter Schertz were the first in Peoria to “run a regular ice wagon.”

In 1870, Detweiller partnered with Nelson L. Woodruff, father of the famous mayor, to form the Peoria Lake Ice Company. They constructed multiple ice houses along the river and shipped ice by barge to Memphis, Nashville and St. Louis before separating and becoming competitors six years later.

The Woodruff Ice Company

For many years, men with handsaws would literally cut the ice from the surface of the river and haul it on horses back to the ice houses. According to Henry’s son, Thomas H. Detweiller: “Long strips of this ice would be pulled into the area in front of the elevators, where men with steel bars would break the strips… into cakes which would move up the elevators into the storage house. There it would be packed in sawdust to await warm weather.”

Unlike its competitors, the Detweiller Ice Company never made the switch to artificial ice.

The heyday of the ice business lasted from about 1870 to 1910, as ice went from a luxury good to a common household staple. Peoria had five major ice companies—including Detweiller’s and Woodruff’s—among smaller operations, harvesting some 75,000 tons of ice from the Illinois River each year.

The first artificial ice-making machine came to Peoria in 1885 via Gipps Brewery, and eventually the contraption put an end to the business entirely. The ice houses slowly disappeared with the onset of the Depression and the last ice harvest on the Illinois River took place in about 1934. a&s

Visit our PS Blog for more "ice-related" historical content: "Skating and Sledding in Old Peoria."