Ice harvests were common over the centuries, as people experimented with saving the winter's ice in underground storage for the preservation of certain foods. The Illinois River often gave an abundant harvest of ice for private, public, and commercial establishments.
The first ice houses were built below ground with drainage to prevent melting. The first American patent for an icehouse design was granted in 1665 to Sir William Berkeley, later a governor of Virginia. At that time, icehouses were sometimes buried under sod, double-walled, and ceilinged, the recesses stuffed with straw. George Washington experimented with ice houses. Thomas Jefferson had an icehouse at Monticello that was 16 feet deep and could hold 62 wagonloads of ice.
A later development in the Midwest was the packing of sawdust more than a foot thick on all sides of the ice; this would keep ice without having to build an underground structure. Families who were not wealthy enough to have ice houses used their barns, cellars, and wells to store ice packed with straw.
Commercial ice houses allowed breweries to brew all year, not just in cool seasons. Ice houses extended the life of dairy products for dairy farmers and created an ice cream industry. Meat packers and fish haulers bought large quantities of ice to use in shipping their products long distances by train. Home consumers preserved fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk products at home.
Ice became a crucial element in the transporting of fish and ducks to market. Each town usually had at least one ice company that cut and stored ice and sold it to fish markets, duck hunters, and railroad companies, all of which participated in getting fresh fish and fowl to markets hundreds of miles from the river.