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If these walls could talk: the Jefferson Street ice house

January 23, 2013

It's been several weeks since the last entry in our series of "virtual" visits to various buildings in Culver, though we're still in the general downtown area. We've traveled east on Jefferson Street to its end at the shore of Lake Maxinkuckee (not bothering, though, to cross the railroad tracks just west of the shoreline) and now we're just about done with the street entirely.

If you headed to today's location nowadays, you'd be standing on Culver Cove property; but for several decades in the early 20th century, its most notable use was as part of the Medbourn ice house.

The story of the ice industry in Culver has been told a number of times in a variety of venues, but it remains one of the more fascinating aspects of our history here. That's partly because we're so far removed from the lack of electricity -- and hence convenient refrigeration -- which had made ice harvesting necessary for hundreds of years prior. It's also because Culver made a name for itself around the state and even the Midwest for its production of "pure Maxinkuckee ice," to the tune of literally millions of tons of ice per season, an endeavor which also provided an important source of income to local farmers and laborers during what would otherwise have been a pretty stagnant time of year in terms of money making.

The ice industry had its start in the 19th century and hit Culver by 1882, when Indianapolis businessman Sterling Holt opened an ice house on the west shore of the lake, just north of the outlet, with Sam Medbourn as manager.

A cover story headline in the Marmont Herald (the precursor to the Culver Citizen, in the days when Culver was still Marmont) declared, “Ice for Millions…Over Four Hundred Car Loads Cut Thus Far this Season (and not half of the ice houses filled yet…an industry that is a God-send to the laboring men in the winter).” The article noted some $15,000 per year was left in Culver due to the ice industry, a might hefty sum in 1895.

There were two major ice harvesting operations on the south end of town prior to the opening of Samuel Medbourn's ice business, the Lake Maxinkuckee Ice Company, on Jefferson Street. As our own frequent contributor, Rev. Dr. John Houghton unearthed in his 1976 Citizen article on the ice industry, Medbourn's great innovation to the ice business lay in the channel available to him underneath the railroad tracks around what would today be the southern end of the Culver Cove building.

That's because movement of ice blocks from the ice "field" on the lake, to the storage buildings on the other side of the tracks had to be halted each time a train came through. Utilizing the under-track channel at the Jefferson Street site meant work could continue unabated, regardless of rail traffic.

Medbourn, who had started his career in frozen water in the Holt operation, opened his house circa 1903 on Jefferson Street. It would soon become Culver's sole commercial ice operation, and it's certainly the one most present-day Culverites who remember the ice industry remember at all.

Elizabeth Davis, in last week's Citizen, recalled what surely was a not-unfamiliar story to many in the area: that of her father feeding the livestock before sunrise on their farm near Burr Oak and trudging, in the dark, to the ice house to spend the day working. Payment -- which on a few occasions was rendered in gold, according to Citizen accounts and the recollections of late Culver fire chief David Burns -- facilitated Mr. Zechiel's purchasing a few groceries before walking back to Burr Oak that evening, sharing his purchases with his family, and tending the stock before bed.

The Medbourn ice house typically employed around 300 men each winter, and according to Burns, work often continued through the night.
Those with a penchant for history often find themselves impressed with the ingenuity of our ancestors, faced with challenging tasks minus the technological advances of the present age. Workers at the Medbourn house, said Burns, utilized calcium carbide, or acetylene lights combined with reflective sheets of steel, to facilitate ongoing work through the dark hours of night, on the large ice field offshore from Jefferson Street.

The Maxinkuckee Ice Co., in fact, had stores bearing its name in both Logansport and Mishawaka, at least, out of which were sold "pure Maxinkuckee ice." Davis Burns' wife Judi's website at www.maxinkuckee.history.pasttracker.com, in fact, includes a photo of the Logansport store, as well as mention that a movie was shot in 1927 of ice harvesting at the Medbourn house, which was shown in Culver, Logansport, and elsewhere. Uncovering that film would be a momentous find for students of Culver history!

Horses were employed to "score" the ice, which had to be at least nine inches thick, into a checkerboard pattern. Large blocks were then harvested and placed in the water-bourne channel under the tracks. Workmen moved these, by conveyer belt, either into train cars or into one of several actual ice "houses,' long, rectangular buildings in which layers of ice were stored, separated by a layer of marsh hay.

Marsh hay, it should be noted, has different qualities than regular hay, and as early as 1898, the Maxinkuckee Ice Company owned mucky land on today's State Road 10, between the still-existant Houghton Lake (today part of the Nature Conservency) and the now-drained Manatau Lake nearby, solely for the purpose of harvesting marsh hay for the ice industry.

Ice by the traincar load was shipped out daily from the Medbourn house. As an indication of the sheer volume of ice production, a 1906 article noted that a standing order existed for 50 train carloads per day of the cold stuff at the Medbourn house! That doesn't include, of course, the ice stored for local use and sales, which filled multiple houses and remained viable throughout the hot summers, a fact which might surprise modern folk unfamiliar with the physics of the industry. In fact, Culver was reported to have run out of stored ice by August more than once, rather than the ice ever actually melting.

Ice, for the uninitiated, was primarily used for ice boxes, precursors to today's refrigerators, in which large blocks of ice were stored in the top compartment and meat, milk, and the like in the lower compartment. Runoff from the ice was saved in a pan underneath for various uses.

Ice, like milk itself, was delivered daily by ice wagons -- horse drawn at first and motorized later -- and residents who remember those days recall the ice man as something of an artisan, capable of wielding the ice pick to break off just the size requested of each household (by way of a placard in the window, if not verbal communication).

It should be noted that smaller, private ice houses proliferated on the lake during this period, such as the Miller Dairy house on the south side of Culver, where the dairy and grocery operation conducted its own small harvest and stored it in a private ice house.

Your editor is fond of pointing out that, at least from approximately 1880 until 1937, ice was harvested by the ton on Lake Maxinkuckee, which gives an indication of the consistency of winters here (though admittedly the 1921 harvest was hampered by the mild winter, though not entirely subverted). The 1935 harvest was hampered, in fact, by the harshness of the winter: the ice, according to Burns, was 32 inches thick and virtually impossible to cut through with a saw!

The year 1940 saw the final harvest of natural ice from Lake Maxinkuckee, ending a more than 50-year era. Electricity had hit Culver long before, though it wasn't until the massive addition of electrical lines to rural areas as part of the Depression-era WPA endeavors, and the gradual spread of electircal refrigeration across the board, that the demise of the ice harvesting industry was no longer avoidable. The Medbourn company, in the 1920s and early 1930s, tried through a series of advertisements in Culver and other newspapers to point out the high cost of electrical refrigeration to the consumer, and the benefits of natural ice as well, but eventually the inevitable occurred.

A March, 1943 signaled the final death knell for Culver’s “ice age,” when the Medbourn ice house burned to the ground at an estimated $5,000 loss.

The old ice house property largely sat unused for several decades after, for a time part of the Farm Bureau Co-Op's holdings. Butting up against the land, at its western border, was the old junkyard owned by Julius Pura -- there may well be generations of junk lying under the nicely manicured grass there -- but the land itself really only saw major alteration around 1989, when work began on the Culver Cove.
Many will remember the swampy quality of the area, and rumor has it some effort went into accommodating the instability of the ground through various means, to make it palpable for building the Cove there.

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