Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

Keeping Cool: Ice Harvesting in Utah


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Keeping Cool: Ice Harvesting in Utah


Ever wonder how people kept food cold before electricity? Learn how ice was harvested, stored, and used throughout Utah before freezers were common household appliances.

During the nineteenth-century, frozen water was a rare and valuable commodity. Year-round access to ice was an important business operation for railroad companies, and for many Utahns was also a family operation. Ice harvested during winter could be carefully stored for consumption during summer months. 

The shore of Utah Lake was home to two icehouses that were owned and operated by the railroad. The changing food industry meant that meat and other perishables transported by rail across the country required refrigeration. Throughout the 1880s, workers harvested the thick ice from Utah Lake each winter to preserve the railroad's food cargo year-round.

Icehouses were also important for Utah households, and families worked together throughout the winter to harvest slabs of ice for storage. To extract ice from a pond, men used hand saws to cut large blocks from the frozen surface. Pulling the ice on sleds to the family icehouse, they would blanket the blocks in thick layers of sawdust to insulate them from warming temperatures. During especially cold winters, a harvest could supply a family with enough ice to last the entire summer. 

The reward for this back-breaking work was a fully-stocked icebox that could preserve food through summer heat waves, and maybe enough ice to cool down a homemade root beer or to churn a batch of ice cream. Beyond food preservation, and relief from Utah’s hot summers, local morticians also required access to icehouses. Prior to the rise of embalming services, morticians would pack the corpses in ice to keep them looking fresh for funerals. 

Harvesting ice was cold, difficult, and time-consuming work. Before household and industrial freezers, it was ~ice~ that ensured the safe storage and shipment of perishables and kept Utahns cool during the hot summer months. So think about ~that~ the  next time you stand in front of the fridge with the door wide open!


Mikee Ferran for Utah Humanities © 2021


Image: William Turner cutting ice in Jensen, Utah circa 1940. Ice harvesting was back-breaking work, done on both industrial and domestic scales, with families harvesting every winter at their local pond to keep cool during the summer months. Courtesy Uintah County Library.

See: Beth R. Olsen, “Winter Fun in Northern Utah Valley,” Utah Historical Quarterly 69 (2001): 327; Katie D. Maylett, “The Candy ManSaga of the Sanpitch 8 (1976): 60; Richard C. Roberts and Richard W. Sadler, A History of Weber County (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society and Weber County, 1997): 127.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org/stories.