Archived Story

Piecing together the story behind the festival

Published 11:19am Monday, January 18, 2010

Displays of ice harvesting tools were featured at the Niles District Library over the weekend as part of the Hunter Ice Festival. Librarian Conrad Rader gave a presentation on the history of Hunter brothers' ice harvesting and ice cream company Saturday at the library. (Daily Star Photo/AARON MUELLER)
Displays of ice harvesting tools were featured at the Niles District Library over the weekend as part of the Hunter Ice Festival. Librarian Conrad Rader gave a presentation on the history of Hunter brothers' ice harvesting and ice cream company Saturday at the library. (Daily Star Photo/AARON MUELLER)

By AARON MUELLER
Niles Daily Star

Conrad Rader, a librarian at the Niles District Library, has invested hours upon hours of time attempting to reconstruct the history behind the Niles Hunter Ice Festival. He has been poring over a variety of sources to piece together the story since his research began in 2004.

“My first research trip to Southwest Michigan College resulted in a confrontation with a mass of file boxes, some artifacts and a model of the icehouse,” he said. “The clues and leads in them have allowed me to construct a picture of the Hunter family. The picture is incomplete but certainly much more than I had to go on in 2004. It was an awesome and daunting task.”

Rader said 90 percent of the information he has collected has come from the library and SMC.
Rader has given several presentations of his research, including one Saturday at the Niles District Library.

The Hunter Ice Festival is named after Lemont and Henry Hunter, who ran an ice harvesting and ice cream company on Barron Lake in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Hunter brothers moved their business to the area from Chicago in 1898.

One of the key new discoveries, Rader said during the presentation, is the reasoning behind the move.

A few months ago, after years of searching, Rader came across an article in the New York Times archive online that explained a large ice company in Chicago had formed an ice trust or monopoly, essentially buying out all the smaller companies in the Chicago market.

Rader said the Hunter brothers’ move to Barron Lake was a smart one.

“Barron Lake would be the turning point in the Hunters’ success,” he said. “The location provided a large spring-fed water sources, which made very good ice with the convenience of an adjacent shipping point in the railway.”

The ice harvesting business was crucial during that time period, so the Hunters enjoyed great success.

“The ice harvesting business really only lasted a little more than 50 years as a major industry,” Rader said. “Still we take refrigeration for granted these days, but for most of human history, ice was the only source of refrigeration available.”

The ice harvesting business was a growing one when the Hunters came to Barron Lake. In 1879, there were 35 commercial ice plants in America. That number grew to 2,000 by 1909.

The Hunters enjoyed great success for a number of years. In 1911, a Hunter brothers employee counted 24,950 cakes of ice harvested from the lake over an 18-day period. The Hunters also introduced its ice cream in 1914, which produced 400-500 gallons a day in a variety of flavors.

In 1919 the first of the two Hunter icehouses burned down after being struck by lightning. Rader said icehouses were prone to strikes due to their incredible size.

That was the beginning of the end for the Hunters. New sources of refrigeration in artificial ice production and the loss of the one ice house contributed to the business being sold in 1924 to the Consumer Ice Co. of Jackson, Mich.

When Irma Hunter, Henry’s daughter, passed away in 1981, the Hunter Foundation was endowed from the will of the estate. The foundation is still active today.

Much more information on the Hunter brothers is available in the local history room of the Niles District Library.

Hunter Timeline

1898 – Henry and Lemont Hunter move to the Niles area and purchase 22 acres of land on Barron Lake and build two icehouses. It was the first documented ice harvesting company in Michigan.

1899 – Over 100 men employed to extract ice.

1903 – Henry Hunter passes away, leaving Lemont to run the business by himself

1909 – 1,116 railroad cars loaded directly from the lake

1910 – Newspaper article reports $10,000 payroll for 160 employees for the company

1914 – Hunter Ice and Ice Cream Co. formed. The ice cream operation produced 400-500 gallons a day.

1918-1919 – No ice was harvested due to lack of freezing on the lake. This was the only year ice was not harvested when the company was there.

1919 – First ice house burns down after being struck by lightning.

1924 – The company is sold to Consumer Ice Co. in Jackson, Mich.

1925 – The second ice house burns down. By this point, artificial ice production has replaced ice harvesting, so the houses are not rebuilt.

1981 – Irma Hunter, Henry’s daughter, passes away. The Hunter Foundation is endowed from the will of the estate. The foundation is still in existence today.

Source: Local History Room of Niles District Library

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