Arlo Levisen is the President of the Grant County Historical Society. He has extensive knowledge on the history of the area, including: Grant County History, Big Stone Lake History, the History of the Holland Grist Mill, the History of the Milbank Congregational Church and much more! Send in your questions. Arlo will have the answers!
I remember a time when ice was delivered in Milbank – about 1940. Do you know when that business ceased to exist? The iceman would drive down each street and deliver blocks of ice to residents’ ice boxes. Little boys would beg for small chunks in the hot summer. J.S
Big Stone Ice became well known, or maybe even famous, in the upper Midwest and the northwestern part of the US in the first half of the 20th Century. Ice cutting began in January at the very foot of Big Stone Lake. This process employed as many as 250 men who cut and loaded into rail cars up to 3.5 million pounds of pure, clear ice. There was great demand for this product because of its high quality.
In the 1930s, a 1,000-pound block of ice cost seven dollars. The company grossed $25,000 to $30,000 a season, which translates to about $450,000 to $500,000 in 2019.
In the early days, ice blocks were cut by hand and horses were used to haul the blocks. Eventually, large saws were used, such as the popular Kurtz ice saw. Almost all of the ice blocks were floated through a channel cut in the lake to an elevator system, which brought the blocks up to the level of the railcars. The cars were loaded at the railroad spur in Ortonville, which is now part of the Ortonville City Park.
The Kruger Bros. in Aberdeen, a major ice wholesaler, received the ice shipments from the railroad. They supplied larger hotels across the Northwest and also railroad companies.The Milwaukee Road and the Winona and St. Peter railroad companies were both huge customers.
The ice houses in Milbank, Ortonville, and other small towns were supplied by truck by the Fred Peterson & Son Company. According to my notes, this company might have been headquartered in Big Stone City. The Herman Pretzer Company was another local wholesaler in Aberdeen (I believe), supplying the local ice houses in that area.
By 1950, with the introduction of REA to the rural areas and refrigeration becoming commonplace in homes and businesses, the “ice industry” melted away.
I have also read the Drake Letters, which detail the early development of Milbank. They say between 1880 to 1889, James Drake had a business called The Beehive. It was located on the west side of the north end of Main Street and it sold ice blocks to families and businesses.
James Drake and his brothers cut ice from the Whetstone River. The stretch where they harvested the ice ran from their home called Brookside built at the Whetstone’s edge, to the A.J. Bleser home, called Sunnybrook, also situated at the edge of the river. There are a couple of wide spots in the river there, where access would have been easier. They, too, cut the blocks by hand and hauled the ice using horses. The ice was taken to a large ice house built into the side of the hill just to the northeast of the Drake’s Brookside house.
Great question! Thanks for asking!