Harmon’s Histories: Missoula’s ‘ice economy’ was hot in the 1800s

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

“The boarders at the Montana hotel say the nearest case of (being) ‘talked to death’ which ever took place” happened at that Missoula hotel in 1897.

Herman Hutter got so wound up about his favorite subject (the ice harvesting business), going on and on about it, that one of the boarders, Gustave Ohm, “actually fell on the floor before Hutter’s feet.”

Ohm hadn’t literally been talked to death, but he made his point. The theatrics did manage to quiet Hutter – for a moment.

It’s hard to blame Herman Hutter. He was fascinated with ice – every aspect of the frozen liquid. He had operated an ice house in Missoula for years before selling it to Otto Seigel, who needed it for the 500 tons of ice he harvested from a pond in Pattee Canyon.

These days, having a cool drink in the summertime is something we take for granted. But in the pre-refrigeration era of the 1800s, ice harvesting and storage was a big deal in Montana.

For farmers, ice was a necessity in keeping dairy products cool and marketable through the summer months. Many had their own ponds for ice harvesting and they built “first-class ice houses,” with proper double walls and appropriate drainage, according to the Rosebud County News.

In Billings, “The Crystal company (built) what (was) said to be the largest ice house in the state,” measuring 300 by 140 feet, according to the local Gazette.

The company employed as many as 50 men each winter to cut upwards of 6,000 tons of ice from the Yellowstone River and transfer the blocks to the storage facility.

It seemed just about everyone – from business owners to housewives – had an ice box around the turn of the century. 

Interestingly, they were not called ice boxes at the time – they were called refrigerators. Only after the advent of electric refrigerators were those earlier devices dubbed “ice boxes” to avoid confusion.

Some of the biggest consumers of ice were the railroads. After all, the traveling public expected fresh food and cool refreshments on their journeys.

The Northern Pacific had crews harvesting ice all winter, storing it in company ice houses along the route. Crews in Forsyth harvested blocks from the Yellowstone, then shipped them to other division points.

Near Glendive, huge blocks of ice “nearly two feet thick and perfectly clear” were being cut from “just above the Eagle Butte dyke,” according to the Glendive Times.

A giant storage facility was built next to the NP depot in Missoula. The Missoulian newspaper estimated 50 men worked there putting up thousands of tons of ice. “Car load after car load of ice (was) brought down from Lo Lo on every incoming train.

“The men are divided in three crews, two of them working on the ice, while the remainder constitutes the sawdust gang. The ice is good quality, as it comes out of the cars in cakes of about 18 inches thick, 36 inches wide and 6 feet long, which is generally broken in two as soon as the cake is received at the ice house.”

To the north, Great Northern Railroad crews were harvesting their supply “at Marion from the surface of Little Bitter Root lake,” according to the Whitefish Pilot.

It was dangerous work – at times, even deadly.

In July 1892, David Grimm, a 36-year-old man with a wife and four children, was killed while working at the N. P. R. R. ice house just west of the Missoula depot.

Grimm was on the second story of the facility, pulling blocks out for use in the water coolers of the railroad’s passenger cars. It appeared he pulled so hard on one block of ice that when it snapped loose he fell to the platform below with the block following, crushing him.

The end of the ice house and ice box era was in sight by the late 19th century. At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the “Cold Storage Pavilion” showed off the latest technology that would soon end the dependence on wintertime harvesting and storage of ice.

Inside were giant machines made up of multiple engines, air pumps and dynamos, churning out an estimated 80 tons of manmade ice to the delight of fair-goers. The pavilion also contained the latest in ice storage innovations.

By 1913, the home-use refrigerator had been invented, followed by the development of freon cooling in the 1920s.

And I suppose it’s quite possible right about then – in the roaring ’20s – some other person, in some another hotel lobby, might also have begun carrying on endlessly about the latest technology of the day, in the Herman Hutter-style of 1897. 

And perhaps, as before, there would also be some poor fellow about to play the role of Gustave Ohm, falling over – having been “talked to death.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.