Dig Deeper-Ice House

Dig Deeper - The Cedar Falls Ice House

The land where the Ice House Museum sits has been the site of an ice house since as early as 1858. It was then that Black Hawk County’s first permanent settler, William Sturgis, built his cabin on the banks of the river. Several ice businesses came and went on that spot, and a large wooden ice house was in place before Hugh Smith, owner of the Cedar Falls Ice and Fuel Company, constructed the existing building in November 1921. The old wooden ice house was destroyed by fire on the night of October 22, 1921. 

On that night, Smith and his wife were attending a performance at the Cotton Theatre, (now the Oster Regent Theatre). His son located Smith in an aisle seat and whispered, “Papa! The ice house is burning down!” Smith hurried to his place of business and watched the ice house go up in flames in less than an hour. 

On October 24, 1921, The Cedar Falls Record reported: “An expert building engineer from Chicago is en route today on a telegraphic call from Manager Smith to assist him in drawing up plans for a reinforced structure to replace the old frame building.” The community rallied to Smith’s aid. On the Thursday following the fire, 200 volunteers cleared the rubble, and the footings for the new ice house were poured less than a week after the old house had burned down. A few days later the walls of the new building were started.

The new building was 100 feet in diameter with tile walls 30 feet high. The walls were made of hollow clay tile reinforced with steel ties between the layers of tile. The ice house had a capacity for 6,000 to 8,000 tons of ice.

Early on the morning of January 10, 1922, the first ice harvest for the new ice house on the Cedar River was begun. At the close of the 1922 harvest, carpenters assembled and raised the trussed double-pitched roof by using the top layer of blocks as a scaffold.
A Historic Museum
The building was used as an ice house from 1922 until 1934 when Hugh Smith lost his business and the property was taken over by the Cedar Falls Trust and Saving Bank. For a time the building was used as a livestock sales pavilion and later flooded for ice skating.

In 1938 members of the Cedar Falls Boat Club persuaded the city to purchase the building. Subsequently, the Club leased the structure from the city for use as a boat storage building for the sum of $1.00 per year. The Boat Club occupied the ice house until 1976 when the roof was deemed unsafe and the building was condemned.

The Cedar Falls Historical Society partnered with the City of Cedar Falls to save the unique building from demolition. They were successful in getting the building listed on the National Register of Historic places, and after extensive repairs and restoration, they created a beloved community museum.

The 2008 Flood
The Ice House was necessarily built within a stone’s throw of the Cedar River. So, nearly every spring, dedicated volunteers and staff have carefully wrapped and sandbagged the structure to protect it from rising water. But in 2008, the record water levels were too high to stop. Water rushed over the sandbags, pushed open the doors, and rose to four feet inside the building. Strong currents threw the displays and artifacts around and damaged many objects beyond repair. Flood mud coated everything.
As soon as possible, volunteers began assisting the Historical Society staff with the messy and grueling job of cleanup, and they began raising the funds necessary to restore the historic structure. The Historical Society successfully completed repairs to the building, raised the existing floor above 2008 flood levels, and installed new exhibitions using the rescued artifacts. While the flood of 2016 did surround the Ice House Museum, the raised exhibition floor worked as planned, and the artifacts remained secure.

Visitors can now experience the atmosphere of a historic ice house, learn the history of the international ice trade, and see how the Cedar River has shaped Cedar Falls.
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