We all know the refrigeration industry isn’t an easy one. There’s competition, pressure from customers — many of whom run businesses in which refrigeration is critical to their survival —challenges finding good people, dozens of refrigerants and applications to keep track of (and it seems like more coming every day), regulations on top of regulations (and it seems like more coming every day), constantly changing efficiency standards, payrolls to meet, taxes to pay, the dreaded episodes of office drama . . .  and the list goes on.

It’s enough to make any sane person occasionally question why he or she got into this crazy business in the first place.

At such times, it’s important to not lose sight of how far the refrigeration industry has come. That, in turn, can help you see (and maybe even enjoy) today’s challenges in a new light.

I found an example of this recently in the unlikeliest of places: during a recent bicycle ride in the park.

Many people are surprised to learn that there is a national park that runs between Cleveland and Akron. Yes, that Cleveland and Akron, the ones in Ohio. The 20,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park follows the winding course of the Cuyahoga River on its 30-odd mile journey between the two cities. My wife and I enjoy hiking and biking through this beautiful valley whenever possible, but particularly in the fall, when it is absolutely stunning.

A prime feature of the CVNP (as we locals call it) is the Towpath Trail. The trail follows portions of the historic 300-mile Ohio and Erie Canal, which was built between 1825 and 1832 and linked Cleveland and Lake Erie to Portsmouth and the Ohio River. Canal boats pulled by mules (hence the “towpath” name) ferried goods and passengers on the canal in the days before the railroads became the preferred means of travel.

On a recent bike ride along the towpath, we spotted a historical marker. It informed us that the spot we were standing on was the site of a large ice-harvesting operation in the middle of the 19th century. Ice harvesting! That really started me thinking about the days when the only available refrigeration was courtesy of good old Mother Nature.

I looked into it, and ice-harvesting (as you might imagine) was a brutally difficult affair.  On a state of Illinois Department of Natural Resources website I found the following:

“The ice harvesting process was labor intensive, requiring 20 to 100 men for one to four weeks. It was necessary first to scrape the snow off ice that was six to 30 inches thick. Then men measured grids on the ice and horses pulled a tool that cut grooves on the grid, usually at 22 inches × 32 to 44 inches square. The next step was to cut through the grooves until the blocks broke off and float them down the cleared channel to a chute, where they were hauled up and into the ice house.

“Men used breaking-off bars and one-handed crosscut ice saws to finish cutting the blocks of ice, which they floated or poled (like a raft) down to the ice house. Each block was moved up a chute with hooks to various levels as the ice house filled with layers of ice separated and surrounded by layers of sawdust supplied by lumber mills as an insulator.”

Other sites informed me that a large ice-harvesting operation could have a crew of hundreds and could cut thousands of tons of ice daily — on a workday that started at 4 a.m. and ended at sunset. Limbs and backs were always at risk from the cutting and hauling, and frostbite was a constant threat.  

So the next time you’re feeling bruised and battered by the trials and travails of the modern refrigeration industry, take a moment to think about how far the art and science of refrigeration have come and how hugely important the industry has become to humanity. It might just warm your heart — and maybe even your toes.