Ernst Neibergall: Preserving the Memory of the Ice Harvesting Industry of Ohio

Authored by Amy M. Smith

Image captured by Ernst Neibergall depicting Lake Erie ice harvesters using a horse and specialized plow to make the first cut in the ice for harvesting in 1913.

Prior to the invention of the electric refrigerator in 1912, people used an icebox that had to be stocked with ice that had been harvested from frozen bodies of fresh water in the winter and shipped to consumers (Hurt 1986). For most of the 19th century, Sandusky, Ohio was known as the “Ice Capital of the Great Lakes” with ice houses and transportation equipment all along the shores of Lake Erie (Kavanaugh 2003). 

Ice harvesting involved clearing deep snow off of the ice, then cutting out blocks and sliding them across the lake to the ice houses on the shore (Hurt 1986). Once crews, like the one depicted above, had cut the blocks, more men came to push the blocks to a conveyer belt that moved the ice up a chute and into the warehouses (Hurt 1986). This was dangerous work in which both the men and the horses had to be harnessed with ropes so that they could be pulled out of the freezing water when they inevitably fell through thin patches of ice (Deitz 2003). When the blocks of ice were moving up the conveyer belt, it was not uncommon for men standing at the bottom of the chutes to be crushed by the heavy blocks if they slid back down (Deitz 2003). In spite of the danger, up to 2,000 men participated in this seasonal work for about two dollars a day; mostly comprised of off-season local farmers and newly arrived immigrants to the United States (Dietz 2003).

Photographic documentation of everyday life as an art form was in its infancy when Ernst Neibergall immigrated to the United States in 1906 (Trusty 2018). He moved to the Sandusky area to start a photography business and took commissioned photos of important places and events, but also captured images of the local people in their work and lives (Trusty 2018).

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, hostility toward German immigrants spiked, and many communities began to treat their new neighbors with suspicion (Fouka 2019). The agency that predates the Federal Bureau of Investigation had up to 250,000 civilian informers charged with watching newly arrived Germans for disloyalty at this time (Fouka 2019). Neibergall was persecuted by authorities and in 1918 all of his cameras and equipment were confiscated by government agents, and then again at the start of WWII (Kavanaugh 2003). In spite of these challenges, Ernst provided us with some of the only photos of what was a major industry in Sandusky for a century of its history. Ernst Neibergall died alone and penniless in 1945 and bequeathed his photos, to the people of Northwest Ohio.

References

Dietz, Alexandria. 2003. “Ice Harvesting: Sandusky’s Risky Business Lives on Through Pictures.” Sandusky Register, March 16th, 2003.

Fouka, Vasiliki. 2019. “How do Immigrants Respond to Discrimination? the Case of Germans in the US during World War I.” The American Political Science Review 113 (2) (05): 405-422. doi:http://dx.doi.org.jerome.stjohns.edu:81/10.1017/S0003055419000017. https://search-proquest-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/docview/2213159361?accountid=14068.

Hurt, R. Douglas. 1986. “Cold Comfort: Harvesting Natural Ice.” TimeLine 3. February/March 1986, 38-49.

Kavanaugh, Molly. 2003. “A Tradition Frozen in Time.” The Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, January 26th, 2003.

Trusty, Sherry. 2018. “Photographer captured area life in early 1900s.” Port Clinton News Herald, August 13th, 2018.

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