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Making Ice: New innovation helps Ottertail couple produce mass quantities of ice

Mary, left, and her husband, Dave Chase have operated Mid-Central Ice for 20 years. They started making about eight tons of ice and now can produce up to 85 tons in a 24-hour period. Debbie Irmen/FOCUS1 / 4
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About five years ago, Dave found out his great-great-great-grandfather, Ebenezer Spillers, was also in the ice business, though without present-day innovation, he likely cut ice from area lakes to serve his customers, a common practice at least into the 1930s. Debbie Irmen/FOCUS4 / 4

About five years ago, Dave Chase found out ice was in his blood.

He is a descendant of Ebenezer Spillers, who was photographed in 1915 by his ice truck. In those days, Dave’s great-great-great-grandfather likely cut blocks from the ice on local lakes.

Things have changed significantly since those days for Dave “the Iceman” and Mary Chase of Mid-Central Ice in Ottertail. For starters, they don’t cut ice from the lake. In fact, nearly the entire operation is conducted indoors.

But the couple has seen a lot of change in the 20 years since they began operating the ice-making business. For instance, Mary remembers hand-bagging and sealing the various-sized bags of ice in 1997, when the business first started.

“It started out as a mom-and-pop operation. And now look at all this,” she said, spreading her arms to encompass the building.

The idea of starting an ice business goes back a little further when Dave was working in commercial refrigeration repairing and installing refrigerators and freezers.

“He knew how to work on equipment and was very good at it,” said Mary.

But a number of customers wondered why Dave was fixing the ice merchandisers when they couldn’t purchase ice -- the freezers were more frequently empty than not. So Dave started thinking about starting an ice plant.

Over the winter of 1996, he began purchasing equipment to make ice and the bins for storing the ice at local retailers, and by June 1997, the couple was in the ice business. They made ice and went around to find vendors who would sell the ice. They started with resorts, Mary said, supplying ice to nearly all the area resorts, and a few grocery and convenience stores.

In those early days, Mary created a flyer which was sent out to potential customers, which proved to be a successful plan to find new businesses. From a few customers in those early years, the company has grown, capable of making up to 85 tons of ice a day and servicing about 700 retailers today.

“Every year, we’d get more and more (businesses),” she said. “We offer good service and that’s what they wanted. Word of mouth has been good for us.”

Quality customer service has been the mainstay since the beginning, Mary said. Various shifts scheduled during the week ensures that someone is always at the ready to deliver ice should a retailer run out on a weekend, she said.

“When I talk to customers, I say to them ‘I never want you to run out of ice,’” she said.

The company also has grown from using an Avenger trailer to deliver ice to a fleet of about six freezer trucks and a number of special event trailers.

Over the past winter, the Chases finished relocating their business from their home property to its location on Hwy 78, about seven miles from Perham. The move included the use of a large crane to set the large ice-making machine in place, along with other necessary equipment. Dave also recently purchased a robotic arm to help in palleting bagged ice in preparation for delivery.

Making ice

Water pulled from a private well is run through various filters and a reverse osmosis system to ensure the purity of the ice, Mary said.

Water is then run through a distributor and swirled around 7/8th-inch tubes, freezing the water from the outside in, Dave said. Hot gas separates the frozen water from the tube and a cutter cut the frozen water tubes into ice cubes.

The machine dumps the finished cubes every 12 minutes into a 50-ton bin. The ice cubes go through a separation process to remove chips from the ice cubes and the cubes are sent to a cold-storage bin. A block press compacts the chips with the use of additional water to create 10-pound ice blocks of ice and then it is bagged for delivery.

In a 24-hour period, the ice machine makes up to 85 tons of ice cubes. Once the cubes are sorted from the chips, they move by conveyor to the bagging area, where they are sorted into 5- 10- or 20-pound bags which are heat sealed and stacked.

That’s where the robotic arm comes into play. It lifts bags of ice from the conveyor belt and stacks them on pallets. The robot is synced to two wrapping machines on either side of it so that when one pallet is full, the wrapping begins and the robot begins stacking the next pallet.

The wrapped pallet is then moved to a 60-foot-by-70-foot freezer which holds 475 pallets to await delivery.

From start to finish, no human hands ever touch the ice, Dave said.

Because ice is considered a food, the business is regulated and inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as the Food and Drug Administration. The water is tested every three months and the ice-making process is inspected annually. Employees are required to wear hairnets and gloves in the bagging area and safety standards are strictly adhered to,  including the use of sound-reduction gear, Mary said.

Mid-Central Ice is also a member of two professional organizations: Minnesota Independent Ice Manufacturers Association, to which six other ice makers belong, as well as the Missouri Valley Ice Manufacturer’s Association.

From the early days 20 years ago when the couple produced only about eight tons of ice to the present, through the use of new automation, the Chases have filled a niche, growing through word of mouth and quality customer service. They expect to continue their tradition of serving Perham, Battle Lake, Ottertail, Fergus Falls, Fargo/Moorhead, Motley, Lincoln, Park Rapids Wadena and the areas between these communities for years to come.

“We know it comes down to our customers,” Mary said. “We thank everyone who has supported us.”

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