The Artificial Ice Co.

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, February 1990,
February 1990

Author: Grace Shackman

Delivering coolness door to door

Before the days of electric refrigerators, people kept perishable foods in ice chests cooled by blocks of ice. For most of Ann Arbor's early history, the ice was harvested from frozen lakes and rivers. But after 1909, natural ice was supplemented, and then totally replaced by, artificial ice, so named because it was manufactured rather than gathered.

The main sources of natural ice were the dams on the Huron River and Whitmore Lake. The ice would be cut at the end of January or the beginning of February—after it became thick enough to make the effort worthwhile but before the danger of a thaw. Using horse-drawn ice plows, harvesters would cut the ice into square slabs, then move it to an insulated icehouse for storage.

In 1909 Ann Arbor supported six ice dealers. They made home deliveries to icebox owners and also supplied butcher shops, restaurants, saloons, and beverage companies. Henry Velker, whose grandfather and uncle owned Dupper's beer distributorship on Fifth Street from 1901 to 1919, remembers that their ice came from lakes north of Ann Arbor. The ice was sent by rail, unloaded at the Ann Arbor Railroad depot on Ashley Street, and delivered to a barn on the back of their property that was devoted solely to ice storage.

Farmers, who needed ice to preserve their meat and dairy products, usually had their own icehouses, and often filled them with ice harvested from ponds on their property. Ann Arbor's most famous farm, Cobblestone Farm, originally had a stone icehouse on the east side of the property near the smokehouse. Mary Campbell, granddaughter of the 1881 owner, William Campbell, remembers reading in her grandfather's diary of trips to the Huron River to collect ice.

Relying on ice from natural sources had several drawbacks, including the vagaries of the weather (an early thaw could be a disaster), melting during the long summer storage season (dealers cut two pounds for every pound they sold), and the risk of infection from contaminated water. So in the late nineteenth century, inventors began experimenting with ways of manufacturing ice. By 1909, commercial ice making reached Ann Arbor with the formation of the Artificial Ice Company.

The company's first plant was located at 301-315 West Huron, running from the corner of First Street down to the railroad tracks. (In the 1990s an elegant restaurant, named “Robby's at the Icehouse” was in that building but a floor above where the ice was made.) The company owned more land, on the north side of Huron just west of the railroad tracks, which they used for horse barns and for coal storage. In 1927 they moved the whole operation there, having built a larger, more modern plant at 408-416 West Huron.

Both plants had a production area, a storage room, a loading dock, a truck repair space, and an office. In the first plant, water took forty-eight hours to freeze, while in the newer one the time was cut to twenty-four hours. City water was poured into 200- or 300-pound molds. After it froze, the ice was lifted with cranes and removed from the molds with running water, then stored upright in the storage area until needed.

A few customers came to the factory to get their ice, but most had it delivered. Walter Schlecht, who worked as a driver at the first plant, loaded his horse-drawn delivery wagon by hand, sliding the ice to the loading dock with the aid of ice tongs. Clarence Haas, a driver in the second plant, had it easier: he drove a truck, which he loaded by pushing the ice blocks onto a conveyor belt that automatically notched the ice into twenty-five-pound sections on its way down.

Schlecht had a longer day than Haas—he had to spend time each morning getting the horses from the barn and hitching them to the wagon—but he found that horses did have advantages. He was hired in the summer of 1918, while still a teenager, to replace a driver who had been fired when he showed up for work drunk. When Schlecht asked where to go, his boss answered "Just follow the horses—they know the route."

Customers placed square cards in their windows, each corner differently colored to indicate orders for 25, 50, 75, or 100 pounds. The icemen would cut the desired amount on site, since carrying the ice around in large blocks reduced melting. Even so, some melting occurred during the day, and customers toward the end of the route sometimes complained that their 25-pound pieces were not as big as they should be.

Electric refrigerators were first seriously marketed for homes in the teens of the 20th century, but it took them a long time to totally replace iceboxes. "The change was gradual," recalls Haas, who began work as a driver in 1929. He says the change was further slowed by World War II, when manufacture of refrigerators ceased so those factories could be used to make war supplies.

Because ice sales were heavily concentrated in the summer, the Artificial Ice Company developed a complementary business selling coal during the winter. But coal sales also were hurt by technological improvements, as people switched to oil and gas furnaces.

To eke out more money as the ice and coal business waned, the Artificial Ice Company changed the truck repair shop in the back of the factory into a cold storage area for keg beer used by area bars. This area has been remodelled into the kitchen for Say Cheese.

The last owner of the Artificial Ice Company was Carl Rehberg, son of Louis Rehberg, the brewmaster of Northern Brewery on Jones Street. Rehberg inherited the brewery, and during Prohibition started Arbor Springs water company, selling the spring water formerly used for beer. A part owner and employee of the Artificial Ice Company from the early days (he was the immediate boss of both Schlecht and Haas), he worked out joint contracts with many local companies to have drinking water and the ice to keep it cool delivered simultaneously.

After the Artificial Ice Company was dissolved in 1965, Rehberg continued running Arbor Springs. After he died, his wife, Elsa, ran it a few years and then sold it to the present owners, Bill and Judith Davis.


[Photo caption from book]: The complex at 408-416 W. Huron, now houses offices. “Courtesy Bentley Historical Library”