We’re in the throes of winter right now (disregard the recent 60 degree temperatures), but 150 years ago, this season was height of the ice harvesting around the country. Prior to the advent of refrigeration, the business of ice was a booming one, with ice houses storing large chunks of ice cut from frozen lakes, rivers, and ponds, for use during warmer months, or being exported to other locales.
Indianapolis was no exception, and numerous ice houses dotted the still growing city throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th. In city limits, there was a core of ice operations centered in the area along the Central Canal and Fall Creek, just northwest of downtown. Present day, this would be roughly bordered on the south by 16th Street, and on the east by the Canal and MLK Jr. St. The proximity of the canal and Fall Creek provided water access for cutting of ice in the winter months, and the supply of ice ponds in this area of the city. In fact, a mill race was cut off of Fall Creek near where the MLK Jr. Street bridge is, and which flowed south
The process of harvesting ice was fairly straightforward in theory, but more complicated in practice. During winter months ice would be cut from bodies of water, such as lakes, canals, creeks, and rivers. Cutting would be done by hand, or through the use of special cutting mechanisms pulled by horses. The ice was then stored in heavily insulated ice houses for residential and commercial use during warmer months. In some situations, water was funneled off of other bodies of water to form ice ponds, which would be filled during the winter so the developing ice could be harvested.
A number of small ice operations were in place in Indianapolis in the middle part of the 19th century. One of the earliest ice businesses operated in the city was started by George W. Pitts, who was born in Richmond, Indiana in 1824, and moved with his family to Indianapolis as a child. According to Berry Sulgrove’s History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana, published in 1884, Pitts began his ice enterprise around 1847 from his property in the vicinity of the Central Canal Aqueduct over Fall Creek. (map below) and was very active in advertising his product in local newspapers.
Pitts initially held a near monopoly over the ice trade in Indianapolis, and the Indianapolis News noted in his obituary in 1902 that while he had made money from his ice-based endeavors, he “was not fortunate in his investments.”
By the 1870’s, the ice packing business had become more commercialized in Indianapolis, as several larger firms and partnerships joined the market occupied by Pitts and some other sole proprietors. In 1881, the Indianapolis News reported on the status of the burgeoning ice industry in Indianapolis, reporting that in Indianapolis, most of the ice was taken from White River, Fall Creek, and the canal, both above and below the aqueduct. The latter was the most productive, with ice averaging 12 inches in thickness. Some ice was also brought in from outside the city, including lake ice from the Great Lakes.
The News also stated that favorable weather the prior winter had allowed local packers to pack two years’ worth of ice, with an annual consumption of about 25,000 tons for the city. 100,000 tons had been packed the winter of ’80-’81, with several larger operations dominating the business: Indianapolis Ice Company - 40,000 tons, Garver & Co. - 15,000 tons, Sutter & Sons – 15,000 tons, Fall Creek Ice Co. – 7,000 tons, Allen Caylor – 3,000 tons, David King – 1,500 tons, and the now outclassed George Pitts at 1,500 tons. The News estimated that 30,000 tons would be used for consumption within the city. The remaining amount could be stored for future use or exported to other areas.
Artificial ice production using early refrigeration technology had begun to appear in the 1870's, although natural ice would be the mainstay in Indianapolis and many other locales for the next 30 years. However, with this threat to the natural ice business, and with the growing population of Indianapolis and the corresponding increase in demand for ice, the various ice proprietors worked to establish an ice pool in order to set prices and better control the ice market.
The first pool was attempted in the mid-1880’s, but one producer Shover & Dickson, successors to the Fall Creek Ice Company which had gone into receivership, chose to stay out of the pool. What was described as a “lively war” between the holdout and the rest of the pool ensued with the pool working to purchase all available ice in the city, in order to control the supply and freeze (pun maybe intended) out Shover & Dickson. This amounted to 55,000 tons of ice, but Dickson parried the move by shipping in ice from out of state, particularly the Great Lakes. However, this increased transportation cost versus the ice stored by the pooled companies promised what the New's predicted would be a “warm fight” once summer arrived. In the meantime, consumers who purchased from the hold out company would essentially be blacklisted by the other members of the pool for future purchases.
Another pool was attempted on January 1, 1887, with the “purpose of forming a pool to keep the prices of ice up to the present scale, and increase them when warm weather comes.” Again, Dickson & Shover chose to stay out of the pool, and were joined by M. Garver ice, both of whom were cutting ice from the ponds north of 16th Street and adjacent to the west side of the canal. The two hold outs firms detailed that there was plenty of good quality ice available, and if a pool was formed, they would do their best to “furnish all the ice that was needed in Indianapolis at reasonable rates.” The public and local news response to the pooling efforts was quite negative, and on May 23, 1887 the Indianapolis Daily Journal published several less than glowing reactions to the efforts of the ice dealers:
While the pool could withstand public sentiment to an extent, they still had to deal with the holdouts. The fledging pool members offered these holdouts various inducements to join the pool, but in the end they remained separate, and the pool began to fall apart.
However, by 1889, Dickson & Shover and Garver decided to return to the fold of their ice producing colleagues and yet another ice pool was formed. On May 11, 1889, the pool issued a notice in the local newspapers advising Indianapolis of the new ice rates the pool would be charging. Ice was sold by the 100 pounds, and the larger the order, the more of a discount was applied (left).
This new ice pool soon suffered a loss. Allen Caylor, an ice dealer who dealt in local ice as well as imported lake ice, decided to break from Pool in early August 1889. The News recounted how the May announcement had been met with hostility from the citizens of Indianapolis, and the paper itself, but unusually cool temperatures that summer had limited the demand for ice. Still, the pool chose to increase the previously stated prices effective August 1. Whether through a sense of benevolence towards the plight of the citizens of Indianapolis, or sensing an opportunity to undercut the pool and steal its clients, Caylor broke away and posted prices well under the pool's stated prices. Further, the News reported that Caylor had quietly stored up a significant amount of lake ice the previous winter which gave him a supply to draw upon without being at the mercy of the pool. The remaining pool members began a campaign against Caylor, claiming his ice was inferior to the locally harvested product. The News reported that the Lake Erie Railroad responded on Caylor's behalf that his lake ice was brought by their trains from the "pure lake water region."
Caylor continued to hold out, but by the next year, a short blurb in the News reported that the citizens of Indianapolis now realized that the ice pool was “on top,” and that even Allen Caylor, “who used to get much free advertising because he wouldn’t pool,” had now joined the rest of his ice producing competitors. However, the News also noted that Caylor was using primarily artificial ice, a product which was taking hold in Indianapolis. Caylor had an interest in an early artificial ice facility located at the intersection of Tuxedo and Moore Ave. on the near east side, just east of Rural Street. At the same time, Shover & Dickson had an ice plant going online on Wabash Street between Alabama and New Jersey (just north of the Whole Foods).
Ice pooling efforts continued through the 1890's and artificial ice began to become more common. Of note, in 1892, a new company called Polar Ice and Fuel Company was formed to provide ice and coal to Indianapolis residents. The company aggressively expanded over the years, and soon after purchased the Shover & Dickson ice facility. In 1896, local businessman John Burke started a ice company to challenge the ice pool by undercutting their prices. On July 2, 1896, the News reported that ice wagons belonging to pool members were following the wagons owned by Burke, and then offering his customers cheaper rates. According to the report, Burke's customers "declined to swap, saying they feared a restoration of old rates if they went back to the old company." Additionally, other businesses in the city were obtaining their ice from outside the pool in others ways, including from the ice supplies and ice plants maintained by some of the local breweries (saloons and bars often obtained their ice from these sources), and from the ice facilities owned by the Kingen Meatpacking Company, which owned large ice houses in Broad Ripple at the site of the present day McDonalds.
In the end, the ice industry in Indianapolis transitioned over to artificial ice as the 20th century rolled onward. There were ice pooling activities in the early 1900's, although some of these included concerns in other cities, such as Terre Haute and Logansport, as the ice companies grew and expanded outside of Marion County. Additionally, the smaller ice dealers continued to fall by the wayside as larger firms, including Polar Ice, expanded and gained significant market share and wider distribution. Lastly, the decline in the use of natural ice and the harvesting of ice from local waterways was partly the result of the growing city, and the pollution which came with it. Pollution from industrial and residential sources contributed to the fouling of the waters used to harvest ice, including the White River, Fall Creek, and the Central Canal. The old ice ponds west of the canal and north of 16th Street were also abandoned and initially used as sedimentation beds for the water treatment plant at that location, before being filled in for new construction. The Citizens Energy 16th Street Treatment Plant, the Indiana State Police laboratory, and the UPS distribution center currently occupy that land.
One remnant of the old ice industry still stands in this area in the form of the now empty Home City Ice Co., building located at 2000 Doctor M.L.K. Jr Street (previously known as Northwestern Ave.) The complex includes an ice house structure which was built in the late 1890’s/early 1900’s by the Polar Ice Co., (1908 Baist Atlas, below right) as one of several of that company's ice facilities around the city. Home City Ice Company acquired Polar Ice in 2000, by which time Polar had extended its operations to cover Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Illinois. The facility is no longer in use and Home City Ice Co. has moved its operations to other parts of the city.
As for one of the original ice dealers in Indianapolis, George Pitts died in 1902, having ceased his ice endeavors 14 years before during the height of the Ice Pool drama of that time. He is buried in section 40 of Crown Hill Cemetery.
History of Home City Ice, https://www.homecityice.com/history/ (accessed January 8, 2020)
George Pitts Grave Information: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/45996094/george-washington-pitt
Indianapolis News: April 1, 1881, June 30, 1902, September 29, 1887, August 2, 1889, JUly 2, 1896, January 1, 1881
Indianapolis Daily Journal, December 14, 1880, April 13, 1890
Indianapolis Daily State Sentinel, September 29, 1862
Edited April 12, 2020 to correct the birthplace of George Pitts.