Archive for Sunday, January 19, 1992


January 19, 1992


Stalled automobiles, burst water pipes and over-eager spring daffodils top the list of contemporary concerns triggered by cold waves.

A hundred years ago, arctic winds brought different woes as well as the annual opportunity to harvest ice from the river.

Before refrigeration came into use in the early 1900s, the only ice in Lawrence, no matter the time of year, was cut from rivers, streams and ponds in winter.

Men in specially cleated boots used teams of horses and mules and special tools to do the job, packing the ice in straw and sawdust inside special houses for use as long as the supply lasted.

According to an Aug. 6, 1857, letter that settler Lathrop Bullene wrote to his wife in Wisconsin, Lawrence was "the only town in the state where there is an abundant supply of ice." The letter now is part of the Elizabeth M. Watkins Community Museum collection.

AFTER THE Bowersock Dam was built in the 1870s, the pool created above the dam offered an even better location for ice harvests, and business boomed.

"In winter," wrote Kansas historian Margaret Whittemore, "the ice (on the pool above the dam) was as smooth as glass."

Reminisces of Frederic Newton Raymond, a native of Kanwaka and an 1896 Kansas University graduate who later was on the KU English faculty, also are on file in Watkins, including a story about 1890s Lawrence ice harvester Eddy Eidemiller:

"He made his preparations in good time, and when the ice shell on the river forebay above the dam measured 15 inches thick, he called his men.

"They cleared off the snow and trash with horse-drawn scrapers. Then with horse-drawn chisel, they plowed grooves in checkerboard patterns in the surface and with big hand saws cut the ice into blocks about three feet square. . . .

"THE PROCESS was simple, but it involved arranging and directing with many tools and men. It was done largely at night, when the weather was coldest. It made a fine spectacle with the river from bank to bank lighted by flares and bonfires, workmen apparently surging about in crowds, but individually in patterns, and mostly without noise.

"There were usually droves of townspeople as spectators and skating parties in spaces beyond the workmen."

Tom Burns, a 72-year-old local retiree, recalls that his father, also Tom Burns, "worked on the ice occasionally."

The elder Burns' primary employment from the time he was 14 in 1892 until his retirement 50 years later in 1942 was as a candymaker for Wiedemann's, an ice cream parlor located for many years at 835 Mass.

But, when the ice was ready, the senior Burns would sometimes be asked to help with the harvest in his earlier years, the son said.

BECAUSE of his association with the harvests, the elder Burns came by several pieces of Griffin Ice Co. equipment when that firm closed, including pike poles, a double-handled field saw and a "field spud," used to bust smaller blocks away from the main river cover.

The saw had "about a five-foot long blade," the younger Burns said, "with real coarse teeth."

Most of Burns' equipment eventually was turned over to Green Brothers Hardware, which included a museum and was located where the Lawrence National Bank drive-through is today in the 600 block of Massachusetts.

From the stories his father told, Burns said "you had to respect" the ice, but he didn't recall that accidents were commonly associated with the activity.

Watkins' files include a report from the Jan. 23, 1889, Lawrence Journal about a narrow escape for four ice cutters: The men had been working on the ice above the Kansas River dam "when pretty well out an ice gorge above them came down and carried them near the verge of the dam. Fortunately, the gorge lodged against a pier long enough for the men to reach the bank in safety."

BURNS SAID harvesters would go out away from the bank and cut back toward it, to ensure they wouldn't be stranded. A trough cut from the bank out to the work place cleared a watery path for ice blocks to be floated to shore.

Pike poles, some 16-feet long, others only five feet, guided the blocks along the trough, Burns said.

At the shoreline, the blocks were run up into ice houses on endless chains for storage. Although ice dealers built big houses along the river bank, many homes and businesses had smaller such facilities as well.

Recalling the ice house attached to the rear of Wiedemann's, Burns said it was a simple wooden building lined with 18-inch by 30-inch blocks of 4-inch-thick cork for insulation.

The river ice was stacked, he said, noting it would frost together and would be chipped apart for use. The supply would last "far up into the summer."

ACCORDING to other information on file at Watkins, harvesting and selling river ice was big business in town from soon after its founding in 1854 to 1903, when a major flood destroyed the ice houses and the making of "artificial" ice began.

In addition to Griffin's and Eidemiller's, other ice houses in town included Julius Fischer's and N.N. Vinquest's. Fischer's business ledgers from 1882 through 1885, 1890 through 1893, and 1897 and '98 are on file in the Kansas Collection at Kansas University's Spencer Research Library.

Handwritten, the ledgers document Fischer's customer accounts and, in 1884, indicate he was selling ice at 50 cents per 100 pounds.

Bruce Banning, whose family operated Banning Ice Co., in town in more recent years, said they had a few artifacts from that earlier era, including coupons housewives used to pay the ice wagon man.

BANNING also has tongs, and Watkins has one of the specially made ice harvest boots, donated by a person identified as C. Gordon.

Another report on file at Watkins noted the pool created by the dam was so favorable that ice dealers from surrounding communities, including Leavenworth, also set up operations here. They shipped tons of harvested ice back to their home communities by rail once that means of transportation was available.

The railroads themselves were good customers as well, the report noted.

Clarence "Swede" Erickson, foreman at Bowersock Mill and Power Co. for the past 12 years, said his grandmother, Helma Erickson, who came to Lawrence as a settler from Sweden, used to tell him of the ice skating enjoyed there as well.

"They used to build bonfires along the river, and the whole town would go skating," he said.

DESPITE the pool's attraction to early day ice dealers and skaters, no photographs are on file at Watkins Museum, KU's Kansas Collection or in the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka of the Lawrence harvests.

Photographs of massive turn-of-the-century ice jams on the river are available, which could lead to the assumption that winters were harder then than now, making ice harvests more practical, but such was not the case.

Phillip Bills, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Topeka, says temperature recordkeeping began in 1887 and shows some of the coldest winters have occurred in the past 20 years.

The winter season is considered to be the months of December, January and February.

The coldest on record, Bills said, was the winter of 1978-79, with an average daily temperature of only 11.79 degrees Fahrenheit. Of those recorded years during which ice harvests were conducted, only the month of January 1888 set a record. It is the fifth-coldest January on record, with an average daily temperature of 17 degrees.

BILLS SAID statistics show that every winter an artic cold wave hits, usually lasting from two weeks to a month. The cold wave lowers temperatures long enough to freeze the river over.

The reason ice jams are not a major problem today, he explained, has to do with upstream reservoirs that have been built in the intervening years to help manage the river.

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