How Wisconsinites Enjoyed Ice Cold Beer Before the Refrigerator Was Invented


Did you know that beer is one of the world’s oldest prepared beverages dating back to 9500BC? It’s also the 3rd most popular drink on the planet — after water and tea. But did you ever wonder how the heck people enjoyed a frosty beer in warm weather before refrigerators were invented?

Seriously, what would we do in Wisconsin without our icy cold brew?

Harvesting Natural Ice from Lakes in Wisconsin

Thanks to our chilly northern climate and many Wisconsin lakes, our ancestors were able to enjoy their beer, along with meat, cheese and veggies!

Harvesting ice from the clear frozen lakes in Wisconsin used to be a booming seasonal industry in our home state during the 1870s and 1880s. Author Lee Lawrence’s article, The Wisconsin Ice Trade, from the Wisconsin Magazine of History Vol. 48 claims that, in only one year, Wisconsin breweries consumed 3-million tons of ice to make and distribute beer.

The national total was around 8-million tons per year. And Milwaukee breweries alone used about 350,000 tons of ice per year — according to J.P Krudwig’s article from Voyager Magazine (1984).

Supposedly Milwaukee’s Best (Pabst) Brewery was the biggest consumer back then. Krudwig also made a mention that Wisconsin and Maine made the nation’s best ice. Kudos, Wisconsin!

The ice trade in the U.S. involved about 90,000 people and 25,000 horses total to get the job done. The industry made about $28 million in profit, which is equivalent to $660 million in 2010 terms. (source) Of course, production is easy when you’ve got tons of freshwater and bitterly cold weather.

Joseph Moran helps emphasize the role that Wisconsin winters had on the success of breweries and other businesses. In his book, Wisconsin’s Weather and Climate, he wrote:

“Winters were usually long and cold, thus ensuring a dependable supply of ice, and the relatively clean lake waters produced ice blocks of high quality. One of the principal reasons for the success of breweries in WI was their proximity to an abundant supply of thick blocks of high-quality ice used to transport and chill beer.

Ice harvested in WI was also used in refrigerator railroad cars to preserve meat, fruits, vegetables and cheese during transport. Some of the larger ice plants were located in Green Bay, Pewaukee Lake, and the lakes in Madison.”

By the late 1800s, ice sales were the 3rd largest U.S. export after cotton and grain.

How Natural Ice Was Harvested From Wisconsin Lakes

Image Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Image Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Every year in January and February, teams of local farmers worked together to clear the snow from the surface of the lakes. They used large machines to score and cut the ice into blocks that weighed between 500-700 pounds.

After the ice was cut, they used some sort of loading machine to transfer the massive blocks onto wagons. Then horses transported the massive blocks to an ice house where it was unloaded by a conveyor belt and stacked between loads of sawdust to keep the blocks from freezing together. The ice blocks lasted the entire year!

Everyday people, who were fortunate enough to have an icebox, needed 25-50lb blocks to keep their food cold during the summer months. Man, after learning this — I definitely realized that I had been taking my refrigerator for granted all this time!

Some of the largest ice plants were located on Green Bay, Pewaukee Lake, and Madison’s cornerstone lakes. Best Brewery in Milwaukee had an ice plant on Pewaukee Lake in Waukesha County. At 200 feet deep, 1,200 feet long, the plant was able to hold more than 175,000 tons. The harvesters worked all day and night during peak season cutting and hauling heavy blocks from the lake. The plant also had railroad service to transport its ice blocks.

Railways were an important transportation method in the ice harvesting industry. The Wisconsin Historical Society tell us in the Dictionary of Wisconsin history that:

“Ice harvesting sites further from markets or with no available rail access were limited to local markets.”

Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay were the exception, however, as ice could be economically transported aboard sailing schooners.”

Can you image having this job? How freezing, dangerous and just plain hard! I think I’d do much better with a crop like cotton.

The Winter That Brought Wisconsin Ice Trade to an End

By the end of WWI, the ice harvesting industry had melted away.

It was a combination of refrigeration technology, deteriorating water quality and the unusually warm winter of 1921 that finished the industry.

Miller Rasmussen Ice Co., a large ice harvester in Green Bay, operated 40 heavy sleighs to haul ice. The co-founder of the company, L.P. Rasmussen, otherwise known as “Shorty” — had his life taken during that same winter.

Dennis McCann, explains it in his book, The Wisconsin Story: 150 Stories/150 Years. He wrote:

“Miller Rasmussen co-founder L.P. ‘Shorty’ Rasmussen fell into Shawano Lake while harvesting ice during the unseasonably warm winter of 1921; he caught pneumonia and died a week later.”

So, that was that for the ice harvesting industry. Early in the 20th century most of the ice companies had left Wisconsin.

A Visit to the Neville Public Museum to Learn More

A Visit to the Neville-Public-Museum

My Boys, Max & Milo, at the Neville Public Museum

I discovered the Ice Harvesting Industry when I brought my kids for a visit to the Neville Public Museum.

I must say, I don’t think this museum gets enough credit!

It’s actually a really neat place to visit that’s not expensive, fun for kids and adults and a great way to learn more about the place you call home.

My boys and I came across a mini theater-like section of the museum with a TV that had a little button you could press to start the “movie”. I’m pretty sure the boys were into it because of the peanuts and apple juice I gave them to enjoy during the show! But, I was so interested in the show myself, because it was the actual black and white footage of Green Bay Ice Harvesting in action!

I was pleasantly surprised that my boys sat through the whole thing, since it wasn’t in color or there wasn’t some crazy monsters attacking people on the ice. But discovering this cool Wisconsin fact in history turned out to be one of the highlights of our visit! My oldest son, Max who turns four next week, even told me his favorite part of the museum was “the movie”.

Does Ice Harvesting in Wisconsin Still Exist?

In some ways, ice cutting does still take place in the badger state. One of the Wikipedia articles I read about ice cutting informed me that ice harvesting is used in the art of creating ice sculptures, which is pretty interesting.

But — I also discovered that Historic Point Basse, which is a living history homestead in Nekoosa, Wisconsin — holds an annual Ice Harvest on NEPCO Lake, called Wakley’s Ice Harvest.

Each year blocks are harvested from the lake, packed in sawdust and stored in an ice house at the site. They actually use the ice to cool drinks and make ice cream at Point Basse’s summer events.

It could be pretty cool to watch! Or you can go to one of the Historic Point Basse summer events to see the natural lake ice being used.

I also e-mailed Dennis McCann, who I mentioned earlier. He was the man who wrote the book, The Wisconsin Story: 150 Stories/150 Years. When I read his story on ice harvesting in Wisconsin, I wondered if he had anymore insight into the ice industry. In his response back to me he said,

“I now live in Bayfield, where during the heyday of commercial fishing, ice cutting was very important. Ice was packed and stored in sheds along the lakeshore to keep fish chilled while it was being shipped. At the Bayfield Maritime Museum, where I volunteer, we have an old ice cutter and often ask visitors if they can figure out what it was. Not many guess correctly.”

Sounds like a good reason to make a visit to the Bayfield Maritime Museum in Wisconsin! You’ll look so smart.

Well, I guess the next time I’m sipping on a refreshing cold beer in the summer, I’ll think about the ice harvesting industry of Wisconsin, and all of the people that risked their life for such a helpful resource.

Here’s a quotation that sums up the era of the ice industry. I found it in an old book from 1895 called 1795-1895. One Hundred Years of American Commerce… written by Chauncey Mitchell Depew.

“It is a productive industry in the fullest sense, and as ‘blessed is he who makes two blades of grass grow where one grew before,’ so should this industry, in all the glory of its productive power and beneficial results, be fostered and classed among the thousand things which stir the pride of the American people in this nineteenth century.”

Did you know how we kept our food cold 130 plus years ago? Do you know if any of your ancestors had the hard job of an ice cutter? Does this interest you as much as it interested me?

Tell us your thoughts in the comments, and don’t forget to like WhooNEW on Facebook! You can also subscribe for free on the top right of the site so you don’t miss a story.

Image Credit: Matt Hamm,


  1. Gary Werner says

    Pretty “cool” story. I remember that in the late 1950’s there were places in Wisconsin where there were cabins that had blocks of ice delivered every day, which were put in the “ice box” type refrigerators to keep them cold. I wonder to this day if that ice in the 50’s was manufactured with electrical refrigeration machinery, or if it was harvested from lakes and stored like you describe in the article.
    The most amazing thing about the article to me is that the harvested ice could be stored for the rest of the year, to the next winter.
    The comments about Green Bay and Bayfield are interesting to me, since my mother’s family all lived in Bayfield, and I lived in Green Bay for a few years.
    Also interesting is how often in history a change comes about because of a CONFLUENCE of events, not just one factor. The end of the Wisconsin ice industry is apparently another one of these.

    • Thank you for the great response, Gary! It is pretty neat how changes come about with years through the years. You might enjoy the article i wrote about toilet paper in that case 😉 thanks again, i appreciate your words!

  2. My town, Rhinelander, was in the icebox business until about 1940, and we certainly have plenty of lakes and ice around here. Unfortunately, the Rhinelander Refrigerator Company went out of business and didn’t make the transition to mechanical refrigeration. The old factory was replaced by a strip mall about 30 years ago.

    I think the breweries didn’t only use lake ice, but also stored their brew in caverns and cellars and delivered it to saloon basements to help keep it cool, and once beer bar taps were invented (the first beer hand pumps were invented in England in the late 1700s), the brew stayed naturally cool until it was served. They still do it this way in Europe, and for the most part limit distribution areas and don’t use preservatives so it is always fresh, except for bottled beer for export.

    Of course Milwaukee is the home of Wisconsin’s beer culture. Here is a guide to brewery tours and such there:'s%20Brewing%20in%20Brew%20City.pdf

  3. DAryl Pfantz says

    My dad helped harvest ice until the late 1960s. As a veteran of World War II he was a member of the VFW in Merrill and they spend a day in January harvesting ice every year. It was packed in sawdust inside a barn to be used at the Lincoln County fair, where the VFW had a booth that sold ice cold beer and soft drinks.
    When you stepped up to the booth at the fair there were large metal stock watering tanks that were filled with ice water and beer. When you placed your order they plunged their hand down into the ice cold water to retrieve your beer or so soda. Not such a bad job on a hot August day.
    They remodel their facilities at the fairground in 1968 or 69 and the ice harvesting stopped.


  4. Bruce Fairbanks says

    This has always interested me. My great-grandfather owned a saw and lath mill on the Wisconsin River, in Adams County, during the 1880’s – early 1900’s. The steam engine they used to power the mills was portable (horse-drawn) and multi-purpose (e.g. threshing grain at harvest time). With the amount of sawdust that was produced by the mills, it was natural for them to cut ice from the river and store it for year-round use. The ice was used from Adams to Kilbourn (now Wisconsin Dells). My grandfather related stories of hard work (both human and animal) that was required to keep things cold, and how he couldn’t wait to leave for “big city” employment.

  5. randy lallaman says

    My father (ray the ice man) worked for miller rassmussen in the 60s he said that the floor would raise up an expose a pool of water to be frozen to make the ice there were times i could not go in there because there were no railings and they were afraid i would fall in,i was only 2 or 3 at the time.

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