Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ice Harvesting, By Pat Kinsella Herdeg

Recently, my husband and I visited Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts and watched ice-cutting demonstrations, along with all of the various tools of the trade.

I learned a bit of the ice industry’s history.

January and early February were the times to cut ice, so it was the first ‘crop’ of the agricultural season. By the 1890’s, it was the ninth largest industry in the US, but of course, that would change when electric refrigerators came into common use.

Mom and Dad (Aunt CB and Uncle Jack) sent me these thoughts on our family history and ice cutting:

“Family lore says both Taylors and Bakers did ice cutting. Most farmers teamed together in groups and cut some to store for their own use. I can’t think of any big ponds on either farm but in the neighborhood there must have been. I well remember on the Center Lisle farm in the 1930's, to the right of the main barn door, there being a small (15 by 15 feet?) building attached which we were not allowed to enter. It was filled with sawdust buried ice slabs which only Adin or Grandma could access.

In Geneva, near the end of Seneca Lake where the road now goes by, there was a very large building with a metal “transporter” attached to its side. It too was filled with sawdust and ice slabs, cut in winter with huge saws and stored (Uncle Jack adds— even in Waterloo this “Ice House” was well known. In fact, we would start swimming in the canal--seven miles away--in mid-May and the water was cold! As the days went by the water got gradually warmer but then would come a day when the water was again freezing. We would all shout as we dove in “the ice plant in Geneva broke and all those ice blocks got into the water.”)

As far as the iceman went, in my day it was George Abraham who was working his way through college in this job. (He became a middle-school science teacher and married my 8th grade English teacher. They used to chaperone our high school dances and later came to our reunions as our guests!)

George used to drive the ice truck, packed with ice squares covered with heavy tarpaulins. If you had your sign in the front window he’d stop, ascertain which amount was needed (there were four sizes-- 25, 50, 75 and 100 pound blocks) cut it off, pick it up with ice tongs, hoist it to his shoulder and carry it to your icebox. We had a wooden one that Arnon had made and occasionally got 25 pounds worth.

When he returned to his truck it would be tailgated with neighbor kids so he’d give us all the chips, cover his load and drive away. His arrival was always an event, especially in a hot spell. (Uncle Jack adds—our iceman in Waterloo was Chubby Dilts, a guy in his 60's. As soon as Chubby picked up the ice chunk and headed into a house, three or four of us would climb into his truck and pick up the small chunks ourselves—Waterloo kids were not as polite as Geneva kids!)”

Every year in South Bristol Maine—usually the Sunday of President’s Day Weekend—an annual ice harvesting fest is still held. Using traditional tools, anyone can come and help move the 400 pound blocks of ice from the pond to the channel and up the wooden ramp to the Thompson Ice House. This ice house, reconstructed in the 1990’s, supplies the town of South Bristol with ice all summer long. And, if February seems like a cold time of year to visit Maine (Editor writes: It is NEVER too cold a time to visit Maine!), then visit South Bristol, Maine in July, when they hold an old fashioned Ice Cream Social, using the ice they cut back in February.

I am willing to bet that our Minnesota Cousins can also come up with places in their fair state where ice harvesting still goes on. NOT so certain that my Florida cousins can do the same!


Pat said...

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for your input for this story!

And Dad, WHY is it that ALL of your Waterloo stories contain people with names like Chubby Dilts or Poopy Collins or Dumpty Maloney or Chance Walters? Are Waterlooians just more creative with names?? Ann and Kathy—do they still give people in Waterloo names like this??

Mom/ CB said...

What an education! This really took me back! The picture of the old building reminded me of the old Geneva one! Keep teaching us, Pat!

Nance said...

You got that right -- not one of our traditions down here, altho there are some hot days that it would feel good to get out a block of ice.

One of your Florida cousins--

Jack said...

Pat, and I didn't mention Chubby's sometime helpers, Oyster McGuire or Spider Range.

Tom K said...

I have some slight experience with lake ice (so do my brothers and the Lochner boys), and it gives me admiration for the folk who cut ice for a living. When visiting our cottage in Canada during the winter, the water bucket needed to be filled. That meant heading down to the lake with a shovel and an axe (Dad always wondered why our axes were dull). The snow would be shoveled off a patch of ice, then the chopping would commence. I can remember chopping through 18 inches or more of ice. It was great fun. You'd have ice chips flying, the ice gradually darkening as you neared the water, then the break through. The initial hole would always need widening for it had to be big enough to submerge a bucket. It was quite a chore. And on cold winter days (it was often well below zero when we visited), three or four inches of new ice had to be chopped the next morning, too.

Pat said...

Tom--Great description!

And yet, despite the shoveling and chopping and fending off mice and waiting for the fire to finally heat us through, my most vivid memory of Otty Lake in winter is taking floor lamps down to the lake and lighting the dark night as we skated on perfect ice.

Stepping outside of the light and looking up to see so many brilliant stars above us. And, taking in breaths of cold cold pure air. Ahhh, winter in Canada!

Ev Taylor said...

Here is the city girl again! I was one of those who jumped on the back of the icewagon to get chips in the summer. I always felt that I was sneaky to be doing this, but I am sure the iceman knew and didn't mind.
We had the sign in our window too, and I was often given the job of emptying the pan underneath the icebox that contained the water from the ice melting. It was heavy!
I never wondered where the ice came from. Now I am informed by your excellent article, Pat.