Since the earliest times the preservation of food was second only in importance to the securing or production of that food for survival. Sun drying was the first method used by early man. It was a process which they copied from nature.
Grapes and other fruits were dried by the earliest civilizations. Cereals and seeds were stored in dry places to protect them against moisture and decay. Eventually meats were salted, dried, and smoked to preserve them for later consumption.
These processes were learned by trail-and-error and passed on from one generation to the next. Before they were able to find ways of preserving food, much was wasted that was not eaten before it spoiled.
When the “Corps of Discovery” traveled from St. Louis to the Pacific and back, they had to hunt for their food each day. A number of the men on the expedition were selected because of their marksmanship. They were away from St. Louis for a period of 2 years, 4 months and 10 days. They jerked and salted meat; however, during that time there were days when they had little or nothing to eat.
As the early settlers came into Dakota Territory, they learned by observation and from others. In many cases they quickly adopted practices that the Native Americans had been using for hundreds of years.
When they got settled and completed their home, they started to produce the food needed to survive. After being on the farm for several years they began to produce enough food and often more than needed. Cattle, hogs, chickens, and a garden were found on most farms. Those who had more than they needed would either barter or sell what they didn’t need.
During the summer they had vegetables and fruits from the garden and in the early winter they would butcher. They used whatever methods they could to preserve vegetables and fruits for winter and have meat in the summer.
Ice had been employed since early times to prolong the storage life of foods. During the colonial times, the American Colonies exported ice to the tropics. Cold and ice prevented spoilage in the summertime; however, there was no way of making artificial ice in those days. To remedy the problem an icehouse was constructed on the farm and they either made or purchased the icebox.
The icehouse was usually a hole or cave in the side of a hill which was lined with straw and covered with lumber or poles and lots of straw. If a shaded area was available, this was even better. Ice harvesting was usually done in January or February wherever there were lakes, rivers, or large streams. Special saws were used to cut extra large blocks of ice. It was transported to the icehouse for storage for use in the summer. The harvesting of ice was a major activity from the mid-19th century until the 1930s.
The icebox was an insulated cabinet that used blocks of ice in the top to keep food stored in the cabinet cool. Cold air circulated down and around storage compartments in the lower section. Ice from the icehouse replenished the melted ice or it could be purchased from an iceman.
In February of 1900, folks in Mitchell had harvested a large supply of ice and they were still hauling it from the creek. With the ice houses in the city full, they were shipping it to other towns not located near a river or creek.
Folks living in Fremont, NE in April of 1904 found themselves in a dispute with those who sold and delivered ice to the homes in the community. Ice was sold by the pound and it seems as though the local dealers would not put small pieces of ice in the ice box. They would simply leave it at the back door without washing it of straw or sawdust. This usually meant that the housewives had to wash their own ice and cut the pieces so that they fit into the top of the box.
One iceman commented that he often had to spend three cents’ worth of time in delivering a five-cent piece of ice. Also there often would be no water handy and he would have to wait till it was brought to him. The dealers claimed that they were trying to get rid of the smaller and less profitable sales without doing their better customers an injustice. No record reports the outcome of this dispute. Apparently the icemen won.
The Norfolk Weekly News-Journal of August 14, 1908 reported that: “The first carload of artificial ice to be shipped out of Norfolk by the Pure Ice Company went yesterday morning by freight to J. W. McCann, the druggist at Dallas, S.D. It was possible that in the future carload shipments would be regularly shipped to Dallas. Later, Mr. McCann asked that a car load a week be sent to Dallas. Previously, Dallas had procured its ice a few miles south of town from Ponca Creek.
In 1909, a doctor who was in vigorous pursuit of germs and microbes which endangered the nation’s food supply turned his microscope on the household ice box. He found that many of the appliances were not as they should be. He urged that housewives give them strong doses of hot soda water and frequent disinfecting with formaldehyde. “It will be hard on the refrigerators, but never mind, if the germs are routed,” he said.
It is interesting that early dictionaries referred to insulated boxes not as iceboxes, but rather as refrigerators. Those who grew up in the “icebox” era often referred to electric refrigerators as iceboxes.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on August 14, 2019