Ice harvest tradition returns as part of WinterFest

Annual tradition returns after two-decade absence ... Pictured above are individuals from 1994 who participated in an ice harvest activity on the Mississippi River at Lansing. The year 1997 was the last year the Gary Galema family of Lansing demonstrated this 100-year-old family endeavor, but a crew of family members and others will once again be harvesting ice from the river as part of Lansing's WinterFest celebration this Saturday, February 20. Just like the one pictured on top, an ice saw created from a Model A engine and salvaged parts will be used to cut ice from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Village Creek Boat Landing south of Lansing Saturday. Retrieval of the ice, such as what is also pictured in the bottom photo from 1994, was a labor intensive job and will also be part of Saturday's demonstration. This activity, as well as an ice carving demonstration, sleigh rides and many other family activities will highlight Lansing’s WinterFest celebration. Photos courtesy of the Gary Galema family.

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

“Do you want some ice with that?”
That may be a familiar phrase today, but before the days of refrigeration, huge ice slabs cut from ponds and rivers and insulated with sawdust were stored in ice houses so that ice was also available year-round back then. This dangerous and labor intensive task of harvesting the river ice will be re-enacted by the Gary Galema family of Lansing during Lansing’s WinterFest 2016 this Saturday, February 20.
Using an ice saw made from a Model A car engine and salvaged parts, Gary Galema and family will demonstrate the entire process from scoring the ice to harvesting it between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the Village Creek Boat Landing area south of Lansing. Galema stated, “We want the young people to know what this whole experience was like. Back in 1997 was the last time we did this, so a whole generation of folks has never seen it.”

The last commercial ice harvest in Lansing was in 1965. One of the main uses for the ice was to preserve fish, which were packed in chipped ice from the river, and shipped all over the United States. In 1965, a big flood melted most of the ice in the ice house and it was the last time the fishery relied on river ice to preserve the fish. Karen Galema’s father, Harold Verdon, ran the Ehrlich Fish Market. That market closed in 1989. In its heyday, the Lansing fish market sold eight million pounds of fish per year.
Ice slabs were cut every year between Christmas and New Years because that was a time when labor from construction workers and farmers was available to help with the process. That ice was then taken to the ice houses where it was stored with saw dust to help prevent melting. At one point, before refrigeration, there were seven ice houses in Lansing, most of them close to the river. The few that remain today have been converted to other uses such as homes or vacation lodging.
The dangerous process was very labor intensive. Gary Galema, who will oversee the demonstration this Saturday, stated, “Every crew had their favorite spot on the river to cut, but the river has also changed so we stay closer to shore now. We need to stay away from current, which keeps the ice thin. The power plants have also raised the temperature of the water out in the main channel so that affects the development of the ice as well. There are some places that never freeze anymore. We need about 16 to 18 inches of ice to cut safely.”
Before motorized ice saws, horses pulled the saws across the river. After 1965, the Galemas' ice saw was dismantled. When the Galemas wanted to re-create an ice harvest for Iowa Public Television (IPTV) in 1994, Gary set about looking for the many pieces. The motor was from an old Model A car. Model As were used because they were lighter weight than other vehicles to take out on the ice. The wood, which had rotted, was used as patterns so that the inmates of Luster Heights could re-create the framework for the saw. When the saw was finally reassembled, the first weekend of harvesting was so cold that the IPTV cameras wouldn’t work so they had to do it a second weekend.

The once-a-year process involved several steps. First, the snow was plowed off the ice. Next, the harvesters drilled several holes to determine the thickness of the ice in the ice field that they would be cutting. The ice field had to be square so that pieces were uniform. The ice slabs were stacked on top of each other with a layer of sawdust between them in the ice houses, so consistent shape was important.
The saw was used to score the ice by cutting all the vertical lines approximately six inches deep. Then the horizontal lines were created. There was a guide on the saw to make sure the lines remained a consistent distance apart. The chunks were approximately three feet square.
Others came with a device called a “spud” and pushed down on the lines, breaking the chunk apart from the rest of the ice. Next, the ice was moved with tongs to an area of open water so that the chunk could be floated to the ramp where an “ice dog” was used to set the large slab at the end of the ramp. This ice dog clamped the ice on the back side and a rope was used to pull the ice up the ramp on to an awaiting truck. The ice pieces were then hauled to the ice houses. In four or five days of cutting, several tons of ice were harvested. Ice had to be hauled out of the river within a day of being cut or it would refreeze.
In the days before refrigerators, the ice was also used to supply people’s ice boxes. Ice was delivered twice a week to homes and placed in the top of the ice boxes. Farmers would come to town with sleighs and wagons to get a large supply of ice for their own preservation.
Karen Galema stated, “You can see why ice was such a luxury back then. I remember getting a chunk and brushing the saw dust off so that we could hold it and eat it. When we made ice cream, it was a real treat!”
Gary stated, “We haven’t done this for almost 20 years. Our children wanted their children to experience the process. This is something the family has been involved with for over a hundred years. We don’t want to lose that sense of tradition and heritage. We hope some of the younger generation will take it over.”
Allamakee County Conservation Board members, family members and other volunteers will prepare the site at the Village Creek Boat Landing area just south of Lansing early February 20. Parking will be available at the boat landing parking lot. The actual cutting will be done from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. as part of Lansing’s WinterFest activities.
Gary stated, “We’d like people to help with the process so that they can know what it was really like, but they can just watch, too. Last time we had about 200 people there.”
Other WinterFest activities this Saturday will include sleigh rides, ice carving demonstrations by Chain Reaction Carving of Waterloo (ice for carving was harvested and furnished by local resident Jerry Boardman), snowshoeing, turkey bowling, indoor activities, a craft show and chili cook-off. Visit for a full schedule of times and places.