In the Lowell of our parents and grandparents, a yellow horse-drawn wagon coming down a city street in high summer meant an approaching escape from the summer heat. City children knew each ice man driving the yellow wagons, and often relished jumping aboard for a piece of ice and a ride down the road, or across the city. The yellow wagons belonged to the Daniel Gage Ice Company, and many kids knew the routes better than the ice men themselves. Even today, they still hold a special place in the hearts of those who remember them.
One of the best things about writing Forgotten New England is hearing from readers. I recently posted an entry about the lost profession of ice harvesting and the ice cutters and icemen who helped gather and deliver ice to a world that did not yet know refrigeration. Through a fellow board member of the Lowell Historical Society (who writes the Lowell Doughboys and More blog), I met Gavin Lambert, who shared the photograph below, as well as his mother’s memories of the ice men she remembered from growing up in Lowell in the 1940s. She recalled Shorty, her family’s ice man, who arrived in his horse-drawn wagon with his leather shoulder shroud and ice tongs. Shorty, as she remembered, was a friendly guy, who readily chiseled off ice splinters to give to the neighborhood kids each summer. She remembered the wooden floor of Shorty’s ice wagon. Although she never knew his full name or nationality, she still remembers her family’s ice man from Gage’s Ice Company to this day, almost 70 years later.
Gage’s Ice of Lowell was, at one time, so well-known that the image of its ice blocks floating down the Merrimack River was considered so central to the identity of Lowell that it is memorialized in a stained glass window that sits in St. Brigid’s church in the village of Ballyknock, Ballycastle in County Mayo, Ireland. Explaining the photograph of the window, posted at right, Gavin Lambert shares that enough people from the Jordan family left that Irish village for Lowell that the stained glass window was placed in their church in their memory. Representing Lowell is, of course, its mills and smokestacks. But, closer examination reveals the ice blocks floating down the Merrimack River, ice blocks belonging to Gage’s ice trade.
Another reader, Dave, recalls colder winters in the 40s and 50s, and how the ice would back up each winter along the Merrimack, so much so that one could hear it “cracking all the way to Broadway”. Dave recalls walking to Gage’s decades ago to buy ice chips. Some days, he would buy a huge block of ice for a quarter, and watch it descend a long slide, packed in straw. Like another reader, he also owns a pair of ice tongs from Gage’s.
Daniel Gage, founder of Gage’s Ice was a fixture in Lowell business circles for nearly half a century, and quickly rose to prominence among Lowell’s business community. He was born in Pelham, New Hampshire, on June 4, 1828, to Nathan and Mehitable Woodbury Gage, and was proud of his deep New England roots extending back to colonial times. Gage even claimed descent from the band of men who helped William the Conqueror win England from Harold Godwinson in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Gage spent his first twenty-five years in his native Pelham, NH, on his family farm, before coming to Lowell in 1854 and founding a business in the city’s wholesale beef trade. He did this for 15 years, setting up his home and business near the Hildreth Street area, in what was then still part of the town of Dracut, Massachusetts. He sold this off in 1869, and moved to corner of Bridge and West Sixth streets in Lowell. Soon after, he started his ice business, which he would build for the rest of his life. It became so successful that he eventually earned the title of Lowell’s ice king.
As Lowell’s ice king, Gage also made his mark on the city in other ways. He served as a long-time director of the Prescott National Bank, and was its president when he died in 1901. Later in life, he also extended his business into the coal and wood trade. Gage also donated ice to many of Lowell’s charitable organizations, a practice continued by his business, and other businesses, well after his death.
Gage, with his wife, Abiah Smith Hobbs, had two daughters, one who died at the age of 16, and the other, Martina, who lived into old age, and eventually became owner of her father’s ice business when he died in 1901, after suffering a bout of pneumonia for about one week.
Years after his death, Gage’s daughter, Martina Gage, became a well-known figure in Lowell’s Highlands neighborhood. There, she was often seen handing out candies from D.L. Page’s candy store to the children of her workers, who lived in company housing there. Miss Martina Gage retained control and ownership of Gage’s Ice for nearly as long as her father had. In March 1929, Martina Gage sold control of Daniel Gage Ice Co. to the Lowell-based Kidder Company, and she gave up her role in its active management. After 28 years leading the company following her father’s death, she passed day-to-day responsibilities to a board of directors, led by F. Arthur Osterman of the Osterman Coal Company of Wamesit.
Gage’s closed decades ago, and the need for ice from the river has long since been replaced with more modern refrigeration technologies. Even though the ice houses and the companies that built them are now long gone from our city, their memory remains with those who saw them growing up, and remember the very human element of the ice men who were warmly welcomed regulars in the Lowell neighborhoods they loved as children.