In the days before refrigeration, ice was a valuable winter cash crop for enterprising businessmen. Ice was a year-round staple in most households, and many families would give up food before they would give up ice. As a region, New England was well-known for its quality ice. The region’s severe cold coupled with its deep ponds produced hardy, compact ice that became quite valued for the 19th-century ice trade.
During heat waves, people depended on the harvested ice to cool lemonade and make cocktails even more appetizing, as a retreat not only from the life’s concerns, but from the heat too. Also, iced water flavored with lemon peels had long been a 19th-century staple of Sunday school picnics. There were other uses of ice too. Ice was used to protect food and drink from spoiling, and it was also used to preserve bodies before burial.
Ice, due to its nature and its weight, was expensive and difficult to transport. The ice of New England was viewed as among the purest and clearest ice available, and the region frequently produced ice crops that were thick, and as clear as crystal. Even middle-class families considered regular visits from the ice man within their means, along with calls from butchers and grocers. During the summer, restaurant owners and barkeepers needed steady deliveries of ice. Private citizens did too. Students were known to take small pieces of ice to suck on as they walked to school. When local supplies fell short in terms of quantity or quality, the expense to bring ice in from Western Massachusetts or from New Hampshire was considerable.
The best ice for harvesting was thought to be between nine inches and one foot thick. If the ice was to exported long distances, the recommended thickness grew to about 20 inches. Before harvesting the ice, any snow was cleared off its surface by a wooden scraper dragged across the ice by a horse. A second scraper was then drawn across the ice, which used a steel blade to scrape away the ice’s porous upper layer, which averaged about three inches. After the snow was cleared, and the porous layer of the ice was removed, another horse then dragged a plow across the ice to cut a set of three-inch deep grooves across its surface. Soon after, a series of cuts was made in the opposite direction, thus creating a checkerboard pattern across the ice.
After the squares were marked off, the manual labor started as men took out hand saws and sawed out rows of ice blocks, each about 30 feet square. After the first block was removed, the subsequent ones would either be taken out or thrust under the others. Once the first few blocks were removed the work became easier as an ice spade could be dropped into the grooves to wrest the remaining blocks of ice free.
The blocks of ice were sometimes floated through the canal, where, at the shore, they would be hoisted out. Sometimes, they were hoisted free from the river, jerked with a hook at the end of a pole. All blocks were then slid on sleds, which carried them away to the ice houses.
The ice blocks were then taken to ice houses, where they were cut into smaller ice cakes and raised up into the houses by steam-powered elevators. At the top of the elevator, men then pushed the ice cakes into their final resting positions within the ice house. As long as the ice kept moving, its weight could easily be managed by one man. If the ice stopped, though, its weight of nearly one-half ton could require as much as four men to get it moving again. The ice house itself was a huge wooden building with no windows that typically stood near a pond or riverbank. Ice houses measured from 100 to 200 feet long, and were wide too. The largest boasted capacities of some 20,000 tons of ice. To better insulate the ice during warmer weather, the walls of ice houses were filled with sawdust.
Today, the once-familiar scene of ice cutters harvesting ice on area lakes, ponds, and rivers has gone the same way as the vision of the ice man delivering his blocks of ice along city streets. Gone too are most of the ice houses where the ice was once stored. What remains are the images and memories of the ice harvesting trade in history books, and in the family histories of those who count these men among their ancestors.