Wisconsin Amish Ice Harvest

Have you cleared out that fridge yet? Or still plowing through holiday leftovers? I had to creatively re-arrange mine just to fit all the extra Christmas goodies in.

When I moved into my current home, I went without a refrigerator for a few weeks. Fortunately it was the dead of winter, so the windowsill made a makeshift fridge for a while.  That wouldn’t work anymore.  I don’t have enough windowsills.

We’ve looked at how Amish keep their food cold numerous times. Some use gas- or propane-powered refrigerators and freezers, or may make use of freezers owned by English neighbors.

More traditional Amish use simpler means, such as ice boxes and ice houses.  You can see one in this post on an ice house in Amish New York.

Some Amish get their ice from ice delivery services, or ice kiosks.  Ice may also be cut and gathered by hand. Photographer John Hart has taken some excellent photos of Amish in Wisconsin harvesting ice for the Wisconsin State Journal.

Poles are used to guide the ice blocks. Photo by John Hart

The Amish in these photos are taking their ice from a pond in Green Lake County (a little over an hour north of Madison), home to an Amish community of 12 church districts (Kingston/Dalton area).

Obviously, the Amish in this piece are well aware of the camera, another real-life example contradicting the idea that Amish reject photography outright.

Loading ice into an ice house in Green Lake County, Wisconsin. Photo by John Hart

The Amish also contribute comments to the article by Barry Adams, which gives a nice account of how it all works:

Colder weather makes handling the 12-inch-by-18-inch blocks of ice easier, Miller said. Warmer weather weakens the ice and causes the 12-inch thick blocks to begin melting, making them more slick.

This ice, you see, has staying power.

The 1,500 blocks cut Saturday will be used to keep food cold year-round and helps make ice cream in the summer. A few blocks in a deep freeze box, which sometimes are old, non-working chest freezers, can last four to five days. There is no central ice warehouse. Instead, each Amish family has its own icehouse that can hold 200 to 250 blocks of ice. Built with well-insulated walls more than a foot thick, ice has been known to keep for two or even three years in an icehouse.

It’s funny to me that the Amish here are doing something which no doubt seems very “Amish” to casual-knowledge observers–gathering the rawest form of cooling fuel, taken from nature itself.

At the same time, they’re letting the rest of us in to view it, which would probably seem very “un-Amish” to the same people.

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    1. Debbie H

      Looks like cold work. I didn’t know the Amish or anyone in the US still harvested ice.

    2. Andrea green

      ice harvest

      Wow the Amish can keep ice for nearly three years in a ice house, you learn something new everyday, fascinating pics and sorry. Thanks Erik


      1. I wasn’t aware of that either…seemed long to me too.

    3. When I worked at the museum in Stockholm, Maine, we still had the ice cutting tools used in the community before electrification. Some of the older men who had worked the ice harvest when they were teenagers used them to make a video of cutting ice on Madawaska Lake. I don’t know if any of the Aroostook County, Maine Amish harvest ice now.

      1. Linda

        Amish ice harvesting

        Magdalena, you may be interested in the Paul Cyr Photos of the Amish in Maine making ice.

    4. Annmarie

      It is so interesting to see that people still uphold the “old” way of doing things in this day in age. I am such an avid fan of the “old”way of life. It truly gives one a feeling of belonging and gives deep meaning to being part of a community like this. Perhaps I romanticize it in my head 🙂
      Have a Happy New Year and I look forward to many more great posts on AA.

      1. Thanks Annmarie and happy 2014 to you and everyone here. When I was a kid, 2014 would have sounded like the science fiction-y future. And now it’s almost here (no flying cars yet though).

    5. Emily

      This is fascinating to me! The combination of the relatively modern technology of the power saw with the very traditional practice of cutting ice for ice houses is an interesting juxtaposition. I wonder if this group is allowed gas freezers or to rent space in English freezers (seems to go along with power saws, in my mind), or if this is more of a thrift issue in these economic times. It also made me think of the opening of the Disney movie “Frozen”, which features men out cutting ice just like this. Maybe the animators observed the Amish before they drew the scene? 🙂

      1. A good question Emily; I don’t know the details on the tech this group allows, though there are quite a few traditional communities in Wisconsin. I would guess it is more to do with Ordnung than economics.

    6. Tom Geist


      I am wondering how safe the ice is to use that comes out of some lakes. While cold and heat can kill some bad things in water, there are other things in it that live on.

      I would not be as concerned if it was filtered water that was frozen.

      Tom in Lincoln….. LincNebr@hotmail.com

    7. Alice Mary

      Tom, my guess is that the ice is not intended to drink (or keep a glass of lemonade or iced tea cold in the summer), but rather to keep cold (home-canned preserves that you’ve opened, or the remains of a deer carcass you’ve brought home to eat later, or refrigerated food you purchased at Walmart, etc.). Of course, they can always filter the melted ice, if necessary (I’m imagining a cooler filled with ice that you take camping—as it melts, it would seem frugal to filter, then drink, the melted ice.)

      As I’ve mentioned here before, a hundred years ago, people in my area did the same thing—cut ice from the local river and stored it in ice houses. It was delivered to the local populace by wagon when they’d need their home icebox re-filled.

      Erik, in my old neighborhood in Chgo., years ago (according to my 76-year-old sister), there were many people who couldn’t afford refrigerators, and still used the “windowsill”–or fire escape–method of refrigeration in cold weather months. 🙂

      I sometimes use our garage to store bottled soft drinks in the winter months.

      We humans can be remarkably adaptable…hopefully, that trend will continue with future generations! 😉

      Alice Mary

    8. Mary Miller

      I well remember my Grandma’s Ice Box. Sometimes the ice man would come when I was there. She had a card at the window saying how many pounds she needed. As I recall, the ice was in a separate section of the Ice Box, and not in direct contact with the food.

    9. Elizabeth Tilton

      When visiting some of the house museums in the U.S. such as Monticello in VA and Billings Farm in VT, they still have their huge ice houses. The huge blocks would be set on a 3′ layer of hay or wood shavings and another layer that thick would be placed on top. The ice houses were actually huge pits in the ground lined with rock with roofs overhead. Even in Virginia, it is reported that Thomas Jefferson could keep ice for over a year.

      1. Slightly-Handled-Order-Man

        That got me thinking, Elizabeth Tilton, about the house museum I volunteer at.
        The history for which the building and property is noted is late spring and summer oriented, I’m not sure I as a volunteer, have ever seen ice boxes in service there in the modern era.

        Even in the history of the house I’m thinking of as a museum piece I would imaging icebox technology and collection would probably have been employed, 110 years ago or so when they had no other option

        Side note, interruptions, I just saw a snow flurry go past my window, ah winter.

        Yes, well, I’m not aware that the ft/pt staffers that are there use ice boxes at my museum, they certainly use their fair share of ice, but it is usually purchased from one of those boxes outside of certain stores in the area. I think that the municipality might frown on it, or some reason they also seem to pooh pooh large scale cooking even though some of the staff and volunteers are noted for it in our community, little cookies are cool, but I’m not sure you’d be allowed to roast a turkey in/on the house’s hearth.

        But I don’t believe it would be very difficult to simulate an ice box if they had the funds to go out and buy one, although I’m not aware that they have a horizontal freezer, though their standup fridge/freezer unit is always stocked with goodies.

        A question that is stumping me, historically, and in the Amish world, in year round warm North American locales, how would or did people keep the things they needed to keep cold, frozen, like Florida or places like that with little to no sustainable snow fall.

        I might go to ask my friends at the museum or who work at other museums if they use ice boxes for educational purposes, now I’m curious about it more.

    10. Eli S.

      Some of my relatives simply fill about 25 plastic tubs with water. Works well with a good stretch of cold weather as you keep refilling until you have your ice house filled. No problems when the power goes out. I know my one sister used their ice house to keep food in the summertime.

    11. Erin

      Great article! When my husband and I participated in an Amish CSA, they would store our box in their walk in cool area. The ice room was adjacent to this. It was insulated and had a huge freezer door like restaurants. The ice was in huge chunks. They didn’t have anything in the ice itself, but rather in the adjacent cool room. I imagine harvesting ice can be quite dangerous. I believe there was a young boy that died in WI last year.

      1. There was in fact an ice-harvesting drowning last year in Vernon County, WI.


        Seeing the photos suggests the potential danger. Obviously they know what they’re doing, but we can see the process requires you to get close to frigid open water.

    12. Tina Kegley


      The first time I read about ice harvesting was in “Farmer Boy,” part of the LittleHouse on the Prairie series.

      My grandmother had an ice box and had ice delivered. It was stored in the top in a metals lined area. Cool food, milk, etc., was kept underneath.

    13. OldKat

      Nice photos

      I particularly liked #7 of 18; the one where the young man named Lonnie Miller is using a horse to skid the ice. That is interesting and all, but what really caught my eye was the horse and open buggy in the background … post card quality picture.

      The horse appears to have some really nice action; lifting the near-side (left) front leg and sharply bending it at the knee while the off-side (right) rear hoof has just pushed off. Great photo work to capture that, but I suspect the photographer didn’t even realize what he or she had accomplished!

    14. OldKat

      BTW ...

      Happy New Year to the Amish America family!