Hilke’s Ice celebrates 50th anniversary

By Elise Brochu, UD Staff Writer
Posted 5/8/24

FREEBURG — Hilke’s Ice, founded in 1974 by John and Marie Hilke, will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this July. Their son, Laron, runs it now, and his pride in, and love for, the …

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Hilke’s Ice celebrates 50th anniversary

FREEBURG — Hilke’s Ice, founded in 1974 by John and Marie Hilke, will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this July. Their son, Laron, runs it now, and his pride in, and love for, the family business is evident.
“I never went to college, and, hell, they had to beat me to get me to go to high school,” Laron chuckled. “I just wanted to get in the ice business.”
His passion for the business seems to be paying off. Hilke’s Ice business has doubled over the past six years. They also recently began distributing bottled water.
“In May of 2023, we installed another 80 ton ice machine,” Laron said. “I got three of them now. We can produce up to 240 tons of ice in a 24 hour period.”
A large portion of that new business is around Lake of the Ozarks, where Hilke’s Ice holds about 70% of the ice market. After serving that market out of trailers and rented space for three years, Hilke’s Ice recently completed a new warehouse in Eldon.
“We broke ground in September of 2023, and we just started putting ice in it (on) March 25th” Hilke recounted. “Verslues Construction does all our building. They did a great job.”
“They do good work all over,” Laron continued. “It (doesn’t) matter what they do, they just do flat good work.”
The warehouses are well-insulated, to keep the ice from melting during a power outage. With the addition of the third warehouse, Hilke’s Ice can store up to 1,100 tons of ice. 
“Actually, tonight, tomorrow, we’re totally full,” Laron said. “I’ve never had this much ice on hand.”
Laron is also part of a group trying to get legislation (HB1550) passed to require that ice meant for human consumption be produced from a drinking water source.
“This is the third year that we’re trying to get legislation through the capitol,” Laron said. “Mom and Dad worked on this back in the 80’s. 
The water Hilke’s Ice uses is tested once a month by DNR, as part of Freeburg’s normal operations, and Laron has the ice tested independently once a month, to ensure safety. 
“Some (other manufacturers’) sources aren’t tested,” Laron said.
“You know,” his wife, Donna, added. “These (roadside vendors’ ice and water) machines that are sitting outside, people think they’re good. Well, they’re not, because bugs can get in there, snakes can get in there, armadillos can get in there. You’ve got all kinds of creatures that can get in to that machine sitting outside, not getting cleaned.”
“Here, nobody touches the ice itself,” she continued. “Even stacking, whatever, it’s all automatic, so nobody touches your ice that you get in your bag.”
Hilke’s belongs to five trade associations. The company has been a part of the Missouri Valley Ice Association since 1979 or 1980, when Laron’s father started going. Laron’s father served as President, his mother was on the board, and Laron is a two-time President.
“I’ve served on the board for probably 25 years,” he said.
Hilke’s also belongs to the Southwestern Ice Association (past President, currently on board), Great Lakes Ice Association (board member), International Packaged Ice Association (on board, membership committee, and public affairs committee), and Southern Ice Exchange.
“I’m just a member of that association,” Laron said, of the Southern Ice Exchange. “It’s kind of nice just to be a member every now and then.”
Both independently and as part of the associations, Hilke’s has provided many tons of ice as part of disaster response efforts.
“I’ll never forget, dad walked through that door (during Hurricane Katrina), and he said ‘You need to get off the phone,’” Laron said. “He said ‘Sit up and be very professional on this call. The governor of Alabama has requested to talk to you.’ He wanted to know where he could find ice, and I said ‘Give me your name and number and I will find you ice.’”
During a state of emergency, ice is used to keep a variety of things cool, from vital medications to refineries.
Laron is very knowledgeable about how the ice industry has changed over the past 50 years, from the type of ice that is produced to the actual manufacturing process and changes in the industry, and he takes great pride in the product he provides to consumers. He’s hoping to pass that knowledge and pride along to his grandon, Clayton Hurley, who is being groomed to eventually take over the business. Clayton will graduate from State Tech this year, where he studied HVAC and Business. 
Clayton also won close to $5,000 scholarships from the associations Hilke’s belongs to.
“We have no intention of selling out,” Laron said. “It’s just not for me. I work this business seven days a week, and that’s the way I’m going to do it. I don’t even want to talk about retirement.”
“And we’re not done growing,” he added.