The DIY Model T Ice Saw

February 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

McKie's ice saw was made a long time before MIOSHA.

McKie's ice saw was made a long time before MIOSHA.

Ypsilanti used to have horses that could walk on water. They pulled a plow over the surface of the Huron River. Men with long saws watched, waiting their turn to work.

From the late 19th century until the winter of 1922, the Michigan Central railroad maintained an ice-cutting station just northeast of Ypsilanti, behind today’s St. Joseph Hospital near an old gravel pit called Shanghai Pit.

In winter, the railroad hired men to cut ice from the river. Horses pulling a sort of plow scraped lines on the ice, which were then cut into blocks with hand-saws. The blocks were floated to shore, pushed by men with long pikes. Each 12 to 15-inch-thick block weighed well over a hundred pounds.

For decades, it was dangerous and exhausting work, until in 1920 Ypsilantian Charles McKie had an idea.

33-year-old McKie was a self-employed interior decorator. According to his WWI draft card, he was tall and slender, with blue eyes and brown hair. He painted and decorated the interiors of Ypsilanti offices. McKie owned a home at 213 Huron, where he lived with his wife Dee and his mother Martha. It was a nice neighborhood. One next door neighbor was Normal school music professor and violinist A. J. Whitmire. Nearby lived pastor Harvey Colburn, who would soon write the book for which he is remembered today, “The Story of Ypsilanti.”

McKie was friends with Lee Dawson, who with other family members ran the Martin Dawson Company, which dealt in hay, grain, seeds, coal, and building and painting supplies. Dawson had the contract for cutting ice for the MCRR.

McKie’s idea took him to the Wiedman auto dealership on Pearl Street, at the present-day bus station. He obtained four old Model Ts. The body of each car was cut off and the wheels removed, leaving just the gas engines and the drivetrains to the back axle. McKie mounted each engine on a wooden frame with sled runners. Where the rear wheels had been, McKie mounted two 48-inch-wide saw blades.

The Model Ts were now ice saws.

Transported to Shanghai Pit, they roared into life, with a racketing 4-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine and a swoosh of ice dust thrown up by the blade. They worked so well that although McKie had made four, the ice harvesters only needed one to get the work done. A wooden frame supporting what appears in a photo to be a leather screen was added where the windshield had been, to shield the operator from flying chips of ice.

Pushed to shore, the ice blocks traveled up a wooden ramp on a conveyor belt powered by a steam engine Dawson had rented. They were stored in the railroad’s Ypsilanti ice houses along the Huron and loaded onto boxcars for storage in the railroad’s ice-house in Detroit. Stored in sawdust for insulation, the blocks were used to cool boxcars. ‘The Michigan Central Railroad Company is filling its ice houses at Ypsilanti with fine ice from Shanghai Pond,” said the February 1910 issue of Cold Storage and Ice Trade Journal. “It is 15 inches thick.”

Some of the ice likely was used in Ypsilanti as well. Around the turn of the century, about half of American households had ice boxes. These small wooden cabinets lined with tin or zinc had a storage space for a block of ice and shelves on which to keep food cool. Ypsilantians who couldn’t afford an ice box and the regular home delivery of ice blocks about twice a week could store food in a cool cellar, or do without.

Although the MCRR’s ice harvesting site was upstream of the Peninsular Paper mill, another paper mill near modern-day Superior Road, and the factory waste and other waste that was drained into the river at Ypsilanti, there are hints that the Huron River ice was polluted. The MCRR claimed that it only used northern Michigan ice for consumption in its dining cars. It used Ypsi ice only to cool boxcars.

In 1919, train inspectors were alarmed to see the quality of Ypsilanti water. “[G]overnment inspectors of a train passing through Ypsilanti saw water running from a hose at the Michigan Central Gardens,” says the July 24 Daily Ypsilantian-Press. The men tested the water for purity. “The test was very bad and orders were immediately issued forbidding use of Ypsilanti [city] water.” Later, the inspectors found that the hose was not drawing city water, which came from a well, but polluted river water near a sewer outlet.

Demand for clean ice drove the creation of artificial ice-making factories. In 1906, Wyandotte’s Eureka Brewing Company began manufacturing artificial ice. In 1909, Ann Arbor founded the Artificial Ice Co. Detroit’s General Ice Delivery Co. and other Detroit companies began making ice. In 1918, the Wyandotte Ice Company followed. In 1919, the Ypsi Pure Ice Co. advertised in the Daily Ypsilantian-Press. The ad read, “Our new artificial ice plant is now in operation and we are prepared to supply ice to all consumers in Ypsilanti and vicinity.”

Artificial ice was clean, could be made in precise sizes, and could be made year-round without reliance on unpredictable weather. Except for isolated rural areas far from artificial ice plants, the age of ice harvesting was over.

Perhaps Charles might have made a business out of building and shipping his ice saw to Northern ice harvesting sites. Soon after the collapse of local ice harvesting, his own life took a downturn. He and Dee divorced. She remained in the Huron House, apparently alone: there is no census record of their having had children.

McKie eventually moved into Lee Dawson’s house at 214 South Hamilton. McKie no longer worked as an interior decorator, but at the less prestigious job of outdoor sign painter. His neighbors were laborers, domestics, and factory hands, including Harry Brothers, an auto striper in an auto factory, and foundry worker Newton Cary.

Although artificial ice factories made McKie’s invention obsolete, it would have happened eventually. A very few, expensive models of electric home refrigerators were produced in the 1930s, which became more widely available after WWII.

Today the only places to see iceboxes are antique shops and museums. The Ypsilanti Historical Museum has one in its kitchen. It’s just barely possible that its ice compartment once held a block of ice cut by a young man, gleeful at the controls of his loud, dangerous invention, all those years ago.

Laura Bien is a local history writer and is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.”


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