Special exhibit "'Ice For Everybody'" opens through Feb. 25

For modern Americans, grabbing hamburgers to grill for dinner or making an ice cream sundae on a hot day is as simple as opening the refrigerator or freezer.

This wasn’t always the case.

Cold beverages, frozen treats and refrigerated perishables were once the exclusive luxury of the affluent. Beginning in the early 19th century, the ice harvesting industry revolutionized the lives of common people by providing them with cheap, abundant ice.

One of the biggest ice producers was Lake Erie and its Sandusky Bay.

The latest special exhibit at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums, “‘Ice for Everybody:’ Lake Erie and America’s Ice Harvesting Industry” will explain the story of how the Sandusky area became the center of a century-long mammoth industry that changed the way Americans lived. The exhibit is open through Feb. 25.

“The only connection most people have with this topic is the first three minutes of the Disney movie ‘Frozen,’ and that’s unfortunate,” said Kevin Moore, associate curator of artifacts. “We are all connected to this topic, and we don’t even know it.

“Why is beef a staple of the American diet today? Ice-refrigerated train cars allowed a massive meat packing industry to develop. There is much of our modern culture, particularly as it relates to food and drink, that owes its existence to the ice harvesting industry.”

Through historic photos from the museum’s Charles E. Frohman collection and artifacts, such as an icebox and tools used in the trade, this exhibit will show the impact Northwest Ohio icemen and their work on the frozen lake and bay had on a national industry. The exhibit also will feature videos of locals who remember the days when their food was refrigerated in iceboxes with big blocks of ice.

The exhibit takes its name from an 1881 New York Times article detailing the ice-harvesting boom. The newspaper said there was “plenty of ice for everybody.”

As artificial refrigeration was developed, the industry began to wane and was gone by the end of the 1940s. 

“Ice harvesting is the nation’s forgotten industry,” Moore said. “It employed tens of thousands of farmhands, laborers and railway workers through the winter when they would otherwise be desperate for work. At the industry’s peak, these icemen annually harvested 25 million tons of ice from the country’s waterways. That’s significant.”  

The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums is America’s first presidential library and the forerunner for the federal presidential library system. It is partially funded by the state of Ohio and affiliated with the Ohio History Connection. The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums is located at Spiegel Grove at the corner of Hayes and Buckland avenues.

For information, call 419-332-2081, or visit rbhayes.org. Like HPLM on Facebook at fb.me/rbhayespres and follow on Twitter at @rbhayespres and Instagram at rbhayespres.