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Hunter Brothers History

The 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.

The Mechanics of Ice Harvesting

Before refrigeration, ice was the only way people had to keep things cool.

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 cooperative).

Ice 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 weight.

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

1898
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 Lake 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 Howard Township.  

1899
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.

1903
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.

1904
278 railroad cars (each car could hold 15 tons) loaded directly from lake.

1909
1116 railroad cars loaded directly from the lake.

1910
Newspaper article reports $10,000 payroll and 160 employees. 1293 railroad cars loaded directly from the lake.

1911
A Hunter Brothers employee counted 24,950 cakes of ice harvested from the lake over an 18 day period.

1914
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.

1918-1919
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 centers.

1919
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.

1924
The Hunters sell their business to the Consumer Ice Company of Jackson, Michigan

1925
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 spring.

1981
Irma Hunter, Henry’s daughter, dies and the Hunter Foundation is funded.