Did you know that a state recreation area near Omaha, NE was the site one of the largest icehouses/ice plants in the country? It sure was! In 1897-98, the Armour and Company Icehouse was constructed just northwest of Memphis, NE in Saunders County on a 154-acre tract of land purchased from a farmer who sold some of his property due to the severe farm crisis of the 1890’s.
According to Nebraska State Historical Society records, the Armour and Company Icehouse was among the larger ice houses in the U.S. It measured approximately 180 feet wide, was 700 feet long, and stood 52 feet high. It had a 300-horsepower engine and two coal-fired electrical generators providing power. The icehouse had 25 employees and hired over 300 men during the busy season. Here’s a photo of the massive icehouse from the Ashland Gazette newspaper.
In 1921, the icehouse caught fire and burned to the ground. Following the destruction of the icehouse, the harvest of ice blocks continued for a time but were loaded directly onto the rail cars. As modern refrigeration and manufactured ice took over, the demand for natural ice dwindled and eventually ended. Nothing remains of the facility today.
A 100-acre lake was dredged and dikes were constructed by contractors on the land. Several springs originating from Silver Creek were discovered on the north end of the property. Water was diverted from Silver Creek each fall and the lake was filled to form ice in the winter. Large blocks of 20-foot by 40-foot blocks (cakes) of ice at least 8-inches thick were harvested (plowed) using a scorer and a team of horses.
Then, the ice blocks were sawed into smaller versions, pike-poled along an open channel of water to elevators and into ice rooms, packed in sawdust and stored. These ice blocks or cakes were used in refrigerated rail cars and meat-packing plants owned by Armour, as well as shipped to other businesses in eastern Nebraska.
On average, 24 – railroad carloads of ice were shipped every day to Omaha and Chicago. In 1899, in the heyday of the ice industry, 100,000 tons of ice were harvested and shipped at the Armour and Company Icehouse.
In the spring, the lake was primarily drained, leaving only a small fishing pond. The ground exposed was either planted with agricultural crops or fenced for livestock to graze. Interestingly, debris and droppings from horses and livestock were picked up each fall before the lake was entirely filled.
A historically-based, UNL article indicates that Memphis ice was of “a better quality” than river-ice, “pure enough to be put directly into lemonade for tea.”
The State Recreation Area
In 1930, the Izaak Walton League along with local residents, lobbied for the lake and surrounding area to be acquired as a state recreation area. They were successful and Memphis State Recreation Area was born! Local 4-H groups planted trees. Watering of the trees during the drought of ‘dirty thirties’ was taken care of by local townspeople. The lake was periodically stocked with various game fish. It was a popular picnicking spot. Many improvements have been made to the lake and recreation area by the Game and Parks Commission, and today it serves as gem in Nebraska’s 70-plus area state park system. It is considered one of the nicer, quieter lakes for fishing, camping, boating, wildlife watching and stargazing near the Omaha-metropolitan area. Below is a photo of the lake/recreation area from our friends at the Memphis Lake Concession.
Take a drive through the area by viewing this Game and Parks video.
When you visit Memphis, look for a Nebraska State Historical Marker describing the story of the Armour and Company Icehouse on the east side of the lake where the icehouse once stood.
See you out there!