Esaias Rhiener kept Stillwater cool in days before refrigerator

Esaias Rhiener, left, was born in Switzerland, but became known in Stillwater for selling ice and filing civil lawsuits against many people, but especially the railroad. (Photo courtesy of Washington County HIstorical Society)

As summer winds down, the trees are still green, the sky a deep blue and the humidity still makes days sticky. To help Minnesotans and visitors to our great state get through the summer heat, we reach in the freezer and take out some ice cubes and put them into our favorite beverage.

It’s amazing how we can get ice anytime we like, too. With some refrigerators, the ice comes right out of the doors. Imagine 60 or even 70 years ago, you had to call the ice man to deliver ice to your home.

I always enjoy hearing his stories about the “old” days: how he had to walk five miles uphill both ways to school every day (I’m still trying to figure out how that’s possible) and of the ice man bringing blocks of ice to houses, and who people would get a good chunk of ice to suck on.

In the earlier days, ice was used in Stillwater during the summer was harvested from the St. Croix River and Lily Lake during the cold winter. The ice was then stacked in ice houses and covered with sawdust — which was plentiful in Stillwater — as a way to insulate the ice and make it last as long as possible into the summer.

One of Stillwater’s earliest icemen was Esaias Rhiener. Rhiener was born Feb. 15, 1819, in Switzerland. He lived with his parents until he was 12, and then engaged in the freighting business for himself. He immigrated to the United States in 1853, arriving in Stillwater in 1854. Rhiener worked three years for Isaac Staples in the woods, then engaged in lumbering for himself for two years. During the Civil War, Rhiener became involved in the ice business.

Rhiener’s residence and icehouses were located near the bridge, at Stimson’s alley. He was in the ice business for more than 20 years, until his death on Sept. 3, 1886.
Along with supplying ice, Rhiener was also known for his civil lawsuits against many people, but especially the railroad. In 1881 alone, Rhiener received judgments from the railroad for $7,500, and for $23,500, which was later reduced by Judge Crosby to a mere $15,000.

Rhiener was married twice. His first marriage was in Switzerland, but his wife died soon after. However, the couple did have one daughter. Rhiener’s second marriage in 1860 was to Miss Verona Weiss and the couple had six children, five girls and one boy.
There were other icemen and ice companies after Rhiener. When refrigerators and electric freezers replaced the need for deliveries of ice blocks to a person’s home to keep food cold, it spelled the end to the ice men. It also brought to an end children running after ice chunks to suck on hot summer days.



Brent Peterson is executive director of the Washington County Historical
Society in Stillwater.