Block ice is essential in the Amish community

Block ice is essential in the Amish community

For a large portion of the Amish community in Holmes and surrounding counties, the local block ice industry is essential to the lifestyle. The massive blocks of ice produced by Millersburg Ice are used for refrigeration year round in ice houses, spring houses and the old-fashioned ice box refrigerators found in many homes across the community.

Despite the fact that so many rely on block ice for refrigeration, it remains a niche industry. “We are one of two or three block ice companies in Ohio,” said Heather Ritchey-Snow, owner of Millersburg Ice. “There just aren’t that many of us.”

Producing block ice is no easy feat. The process is somewhat similar to the way you’d make ice at home in your own freezer, only on a much grander scale and with a lot more complexity. Millersburg Ice is capable of producing up to 10 tons of ice per day in 300-pound blocks. To start the process, large containers called “cans” are filled with water and then placed in a massive vat of brine that is chilled to -32 degrees.

Inside the cans are rods that shoot air into the water to keep it circulating. The circulation helps to purify the ice, making it clear, not cloudy. In fact that clarity — the purity of the ice — is one factor that makes it superior to ice blocks harvested from ponds in the winter.

“Without the minerals in pond ice,” Ritchey-Snow said, “the ice would likely keep longer.”

Once the ice blocks are frozen solid, the cans are removed from the brine and placed in a dip tank, which releases the blocks from the cans. The blocks float to the surface of the water, removed, scored and placed into cold storage.

From there the ice is sold to retailers. Millersburg Ice has a variety of different customers: some that buy on an as-needed basis and others that are regulars, purchasing ice each week.

“We make deliveries probably every day or every other day to our wholesale customers,” Ritchey-Snow said.

Chief among those customers are four ice houses spread out between Holmes and Wayne counties: Mt. Hope Hardware, which is owned by Lehman’s; Kidron Town and Country; Valley Blacksmith; and Country Bedding.

Two of those ice houses are refrigerated, and two are not. “We have a refrigerated ice house, and then Kidron Town and Country has a refrigerated ice house,” said John Steiner, manager at Mt. Hope Hardware.

Refrigeration is important when it comes to the longevity of an ice block. Blocks stored in warmer areas for too long that start to melt often take on a crackled appearance. Ritchey-Snow calls this type of damage honeycombing.

“When a block sits in the heat, you can see it does start to kind of melt and crackle. When it refreezes, it has weak points,” she said.

Aside from the complexities of manufacturing ice, there are a couple of other challenges that Millersburg Ice faces. One is the facility itself, which has aged well over the decades that it has been in operation but still requires upgrades and repairs to meet modern demand.

“When you’re working with a plant that is 80 years old,” Ritchey-Snow said, “you run into some issues. Things just don’t always go as easily as you think they’re going to.”

That’s why Millersburg Ice has been going the extra mile to make upgrades that improve the efficiency of the plant.

“We just did an upgrade to our plant that helps with the efficiency of the plant and provides better workings within the machinery,” Ritchey-Snow said. “We’re limited to how much we can actually increase production, but we’ve done everything we can. We made some improvements to our filling systems and to our refrigeration systems. The brine tank itself, we made some improvements to that. All things that just make us more efficient so that we are able to produce more.”

Another challenge is one that deals with supply and demand, demand fluctuating wildly based on weather conditions and even factors like population fluctuations.

When the winter is cold, the Amish are able to harvest more pond ice, which keeps them in supply longer, lowering the demand for ice in the summer. But when there is a warm winter, the ice runs out sooner, and Millersburg Ice sees a large increase in demand. Because it is so hard to predict when demand will be high, these market fluctuations can turn into shortages when ice is needed the most.

As to population changes, Ritchey-Snow said she saw a huge decline in the demand for ice a few years back, but the demand has since recovered. “We saw a lot of Amish moving out, and now we’re seeing an influx of more coming back to the community.”

So how can the supply for ice be balanced against a demand that is difficult at best to predict? The last thing Ritchey-Snow wants to see is the Amish community going without ice due to a shortfall during years when demand is high, so her best advice is to place orders early before the start of summer if possible.

“Earlier is always better because we do have to prioritize,” she said. “When we hit the heat of summer, we go to our customers that have been customers for over 40 years: Mt. Hope Hardware, Kidron, Valley Blacksmith and Country Bedding.

Ritchey-Snow described one of the company's goals. "We really do keep this plant running for them, out of respect for the Amish and the community,” she said.

At Millersburg Ice, ice block production is not just a business but a tradition, one that relies on a longstanding partnership with other local businesses and with the Amish community at large.

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