City of Niles would like to offer its appreciation to Conrad Rader
who used the resources of the Local History Room of the Niles
District Library and of the Museum at Southwestern Michigan College
to put together this information. We were fortunate to have
Conrad and so many others help us to bring the story of the Hunters
Brothers Ice and Ice Cream Company to life.
Mechanics of Ice Harvesting
Before refrigeration, ice was the only way people had to keep things
During the 19th century, ice harvesting in the United States
experienced massive growth as an industry and continued through the
early part of the twentieth century. Prior to this, ice harvesting
was a small scale, local activity, done by people who needed ice and
were willing to provide the labor. The Niles Republican in
June of 1870 mentioned that lake ice was available from the ice
house run by Milo Brown and H.C. Platt (grocer and hardware
harvesting began when the ice reached a thickness of at least nine
inches. Ten to eleven inches was better. The less it
snowed, the better because snow insulated the lake from freezing.
Horse-drawn plows would scrape the surface of the ice as soon as the
ice reached a thickness of five inches and be able to support the
Once the lake reached cutting thickness, the ice was marked out with
marker plows which cut a shallow guide groove in the ice. The
ice was then scored by cutting plows and later gasoline powered saws
to about half of it’s thickness. Crosscuts formed the ice into
“cakes” roughly 22 inches by 22 inches, although some operations
used larger cakes. A cake of ice 22 inches square and 12
inches thick would weigh about 190 lbs.
Then, large sections of the scored ice called “floats” were cut free
and moved towards the ice house. Closer to the shore, men
using saws and breaking bars separated the cakes and fed them into
the channel that led to a conveyor that lifted the cakes out of the
water along the run to the icehouse.
Inside the icehouse, the cakes were stacked and then covered with
either sawdust or, in the case of the Hunters, March hay, for
insulation. The process for filling the ice house would take roughly
two weeks, and then the Hunters would continue their operation,
loading railroad boxcars of ice for as long as the ice was good.
Hunter Family History
Henry and Lemont Hunter of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin , move to the
Niles area and purchase 22 acres of land on the northwest shore of
Barron Lake on the advice of railroad employees. Barron
turned out to be an excellent choice. The spring-fed lake produced
ice of exceptional purity, which became a hallmark of the Hunter
business. The Hunters built two ice houses and filled them in the
first year. The Michigan Central Railroad used Hunter ice almost
exclusively in their dining cars due to this purity of ice. The
railroad also used the supply provided by the Hunter brothers to
ship fruit during the summer months.
The Hunter Brothers owned the first documented commercial ice
harvesting industry in Michigan as well as the first industry in
Over 100 men are employed to extract ice that is 14 inches thick.
The house is 2/3 filled by February 8, and 50 boxcar loads a day are
leaving on the Michigan Central Railroad.
Henry Hunter dies and Lemont runs the business single handed until
Henry’s son, Edward, is old enough to join the family business,
running the office.
278 railroad cars (each car could hold 15 tons) loaded directly from
1116 railroad cars loaded directly from the lake.
Newspaper article reports $10,000 payroll and 160 employees. 1293
railroad cars loaded directly from the lake.
A Hunter Brothers employee counted 24,950 cakes of ice harvested
from the lake over an 18 day period.
Hunter Ice and Ice Cream Company formed to take over retail
operations. Their ice cream and dairy operations were also noted for
the purity of their products. The ice cream operation produced
400-500 gallons per day, any flavor, and could be molded into
various shapes. Cost of ice was 30˘ per 100 pounds.
An “open lake” year. No ice was harvested due to lack of freezing
conditions on the lake. This was the only year that the lake was not
harvested while the Hunters worked it. The Michigan Central Railroad
reversed it’s usual practice by unloading ice that had been
harvested from Northern Michigan into the ice houses this year. Each
of the ice houses on Barron Lake had a capacity of 20,000 tons. An
advertisement in the Daily Star has the Hunters reminding people to
order their Valentine’s ice cream cakes, molded in hearts with
First ice house burns down. Ice houses are prone to fire due to
their size attracting lightning strikes. The Hunters also build a
freezing plant at their location at Hickory and Ninth in Niles ,
able to produce 25 tons of ice per day.
The Hunters sell their business to the Consumer Ice Company of
Fire consumes the last Hunter ice house on Barron Lake, now owned by
Consumer’s Ice Company. By now, artificial ice production has
virtually replaced ice harvesting and the ice houses are not
rebuilt. In the 28 years of commercial ice harvesting, only one man
died. He fell into the water during the winter, with no clues to
explain his disappearance. Fishermen recovered his body in the
Irma Hunter, Henry’s daughter, dies and the Hunter Foundation is