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Before the Illinois River was murky and muddy, it was a highly valued supplier of ice

Ice flows along a frozen Mississippi River near Chain of Rocks Bridge Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Madison County, Ill. The region has been plunged into the deep freeze with brutally cold temperatures and more snow in the forecast. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Jeff Roberson
In an age before electrification and refrigeration took hold, ice off the Illinois River was highly valued.

If you take a cruise on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat you’ll hear a recording provided by Brian “Fox” Ellis with background on the Illinois River.

Ellis, a historian/author/storyteller who now lives in Bishop Hill, points out that the Illinois River served a vital purpose in winter.

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the ice business was booming, the Illinois River was surprisingly clear and clean,” he said on a new episode of WCBU's history series Postmark Peoria.

“There were places along the river—places that are now silted in—that were 20 or 30 feet deep and you could see the pebbles and rocks on the bottom. It wasn’t as murky and muddy as it appears today,” said Ellis.

In an age before electrification and refrigeration took hold, ice off the Illinois River was highly valued, he said.

“Henry Detweiller had a warehouse that held more than 10,000 tons of ice—that’s 21 million pounds—and they sold it by the pound,” said Ellis.

“Detweiller started as a deckhand and became a riverboat captain. He owned his own boat and his fortunes grew from there,” he said.

After the Civil War in the 1870s, Detweiller partnered first with Nelson Woodruff, then his son Edward (who went to serve numerous terms as mayor of Peoria). Eventually, going into business separately, both Detweiller and Woodruff made fortunes in the ice industry, said Ellis.

“It’s a little hard to believe with our spate of mild winters but the Illinois River would freeze very thick. A team of horses and wagons would go out there along with men with very large saws. The ice was loaded onto wagons and hauled to shore to Detweiller’s warehouse where Detweiller Marina stands today,” he said.

“The ice would be packed together and layers of sawdust would be added for insulation. Kept this way, the ice would last through even the hottest summer,” said Ellis.

Detweiller’s ice didn’t just serve customers in central Illinois, said Ellis. “Detweiller had a contract with Anheuser Busch in St Louis because Busch preferred ice from the Illinois River for his beer rather than the muddy Mississippi,” he said.

People weren’t buying much ice in the winter when they could leave items on the back porch but the rest of the year, the iceman cometh, said Ellis, noting that the delivery of ice continued nationally through the 1930s, even into the 1940s.

That’s no so long ago, he said. “You can still find ice boxes available at some antique stores,” said Ellis, adding that it’s not uncommon for people to still refer to their high-tech refrigerators as iceboxes.

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.