Galesburg’s Glenwood Ice Company
By Terry Hogan
Prior to the invention of the home refrigerator, the refrigerated rail car, and commercial refrigeration, ice harvesting from ponds and lakes was big business. Large blocks of ice were sawn from nearby ponds and lakes by hand. The blocks were floated to a loading point and placed on wagons for the haul to the ice house. In the ice house, the ice blocks were placed in sawdust (cheap form of readily available insulation) and stored for the hot days of summer. It was hard work in the winter. It was also hard work in the summer to remove the ice, cut it to size, and to deliver it to the customer to be placed in the ice box or the rail shipping car.
Galesburg had the Glenwood Ice Company that performed the above duty. One of the sources for the ice was old Lake George. One of the employees involved in the harvesting and loading of ice was one of Galesburg’s successful sons, Carl Sandburg. Carl recollects about the hard job in his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers (1952). Sandburg spent cold January nights at Lake George, east of town. He was, for a while, a "floater" – riding and pushing cut ice toward the chutes at the ice house. He later worked in the ice house, moving the ice about and spreading saw dust to act as an insulator. Sandburg was cutting ice for Galesburg’s Glenwood Ice Company. It would later fall to the invention of "Artificial Ice" made by the Galesburg Artificial Ice Company, but not yet. At midnight, Sandburg would sit on the porch of the Soangetaha Club House. He would eat whatever was in his paper bag. Often it was a pork-chop and bacon sandwich or roast beef with pickles. There were also a doughnut and a small bottle of coffee. His mother packed these midnight lunches. And Sandburg ate them near the threshold of success, on the Soangetaha Club House porch.
The ice harvesting from Lake George helped to keep Galesburg a little cooler in the summer. Sandburg worked one January, harvesting the ice in zero to about 15-degree weather. He walked from his home to the streetcar that would take him to Lake George. He worked the night crew from 7 PM until 6 AM, with an hour off at midnight. He was a ''floater'' at first. This meant that he rode the cut blocks of ice that were about 15 feet long, 10 feet wide and about a foot and a half thick. Using a pole, he would direct the floating block of ice to the chutes at the icehouse. Here the raft would be cut up into smaller blocks and loaded up a belt to be stored, with sawdust, for summer's needs. He graduated from being a floater to working in the icehouse. In the icehouse, his job was to muscle the frozen Lake George water into proper storage locations. Sandburg remembered the foreman of the ice house who kindly encouraged him to do the work, and called him by his name, saying, ''Better slide into it, Sandburg.'' He remembered the respect paid by the foreman to a young Swedish lad. He would remember it forever.
On the hot summer days, ice was removed from storage and placed in the horse drawn wagons that prominently displayed the name of the company. There was no doubt what was for sale. Ice was as much of a requirement on a hot summer day as electricity is to us now. Without it, milk, meat, and similar perishable foods would not last long in the ice box.
In time, the “natural ice” harvested from local lakes and ponds would be replaced by “artificial ice” with the availability of electricity to larger commercial operations, but before it was common in homes. The ability to make ice from water using refrigeration units eliminated the winter harvesting of ice. It eliminated a seasonal winter work when many farmers and farm hands were looking for a source of income.
The Glenwood Ice Company’s president was John Robson. He was also a stockholder in the Galesburg National Bank. Mr. Robson was born in Whittington, Northumberland County, England, March 5, 1827. He came to Knox County in 1850 and became a farmer. From farming, he expanded his interests and influence.
The Secretary of the Glenwood Ice Company was Ira Callender. Ira was born in Peoria in 1857. By 1884, he had settled in Galesburg and started in the ice business.
No longer would we think of using “natural ice” to cool our drinks. No longer do we think of “synthetic ice” as ice made by refrigeration. It’s just ice. Now we open the freezer, or perhaps just push a lever and the ice fills our glass at the door of the refrigerator. We are a long way from Lake George, but not so really very long in time.
Carl Sandburg, 1952. Always the Young Strangers.
The Zephyr. Carl Sandburg: The Prairie Years. Backtracking, http://www.thezephyr.com/backtrack/prairieyears.htm
The Zephyr. 2000. Tales of Lake George. Backtracking, www.thezephyr.com/backtrack/lakegeorge.htm
1899. Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and Knox County, Munsell Publishing Company.