Ice Harvesting

by Terry Shotland, Board member- Longmeadow Historical Society- May 2010 Issue

With the departure of the winter season, I thought it nostalgic to write about an important industry of bygone days, namely ice harvesting. During a conversation with Brad Levielle, a former resident of Longmeadow, he informed me of his grandparent's ice business in town, circa 1900. It was located at the present 128 Williams Street and Storrs Ct. where still stands a yellow garage, which was used for ice storage. The ice itself came from the pond within what is now Longmeadow Country Club.

An Early Ice House [Credit: Library of Congress- Detroit Publishing Co. ca 1903]

Ice storage technology dated back to 400 B.C.E., when Greeks, Romans, and their countrymen presumably stored ice in caves to be used during summer months. Later, in England the cottage industry of building permanent ice houses was crafted; however, according to the British writer and reformer, William Cobbett, the mistake they made involved erecting the structure underground and in the shade. Icehouses, he contended, should be built "three feet above the level ground and in a place open to the sun."  In the colonies these practices gave rise to plank floors, proper drainage and dry conditions, which were preferable for ice storage. According to author Debra Cottrell, George Washington's diary contained an entry from 1785, prior to his presidency and which read "Having put in the heavy frame into my ice house I began this day to Seal it with Boards, and to ram straw between these boards and the wall." Straw later gave way to less expensive sawdust as remnants from lumber milling were used to insulate the spaces between the walls.  

Ice cutting was done primarily in January and February during the coldest part of winter; however, in the north country it was done locally when pond or lake ice reached an ideal depth of 12-14 inches. Typically, snow was scraped off the ice by hand-pushed scrapers, then by horse-drawn scrapers, and by the twentieth century by trucks with frontend plows. Then, using teams of horses pulling 'gougers,' the ice was scored into a checkerboard pattern from the furthest point away from the icehouse. One would score the ice only to a depth of four-six inches so as not to break them off from the larger sheet. Another reason for being extremely careful when planning their ice fields was to avoid making 'kerfs' or cuts in the ice that could refill with water and freeze up, making that part of the field unusable.  

Prior to the advent of combustion engines, large teams of 'sawyers' often clad in woolen shirts worked to angle the large-tooth, saw blades which measured about four-five long into the ice. Once the cakes were freed from the larger sheets, they were floated down the narrow channels by men wielding double-pointed pikes. Finally, the ice blocks were hauled onto partially-submerged, wooden platforms or chutes and onto an awaiting sleigh. The finished 'cakes' would range in size between 22" x 22", or 24" x 36" with an average block weighing about 100 lbs. The 'teamster wagons' could hold about thirty blocks of ice, loaded with ropes, pulleys ,and ice tongs. A slight separation was needed to keep the cakes from freezing together prior to being moved to commercial icehouses.

Credit is generally given to Fredrick Tudor, the "Ice King" from Boston who developed the first commercial ice business in the U.S. in 1805. Tudor risked his own capital to corner the market on shipping ice to remote parts of the world. According to Louis Mazzari in an article from Encyclopedia of New England, Tudor "bought up the rights to ice cutting in New York and New England, developed a network of ships, icehouses, and distribution agencies in such cities as Charleston, Mobile, and New Orleans." Even Queen Victoria was reported to have purchased Massachusetts ice in the 1840s. Since Maine had been the most ideal source of clean, clear lakes and rivers, it was here that most of the ice industry was centered, with 79 icehouses along the Penobscot and Kinnebec Rivers; however, Massachusetts also shipped ice grown in Worcester, Fitchburg, and in Boston's Fresh Pond, Spy Pond in Arlington, and Walden Pond in Concord. Coinciding with historian Fredrick Turner's "closing of the frontier" in 1890, the ice industry closed out its frontier with a peak of 10 million tons of ice annually consumed across the nation. Large consumers of ice included hotels, restaurants, stores, saloons, factories, and wealthy families. Ice crops and harvests were reported in the New York Times similar to any other commodity of its era and "watched with as much attention as the growth of wheat and cotton."  

It was difficult to pinpoint the invention of the 'ice box' whose origins seemed to have appeared as earlier as the 1850s and became more commonplace by the 1870s. Artificial refrigeration doomed the natural ice harvesting industry in America. A New York Times article from October 23, 1870 described what was called the Tellier process whereby a steam pump pushed liquid ammonia into hollow iron plates which vaporized inside a chamber that was surrounded by water. The temperature inside reached thirty below zero and rapidly refroze the water, and the vapor was returned to the beginning to "refrigerate" the contents once again. Of course, the chemicals used in these early machines were toxic, but they proved to be the precursors of modern-day refrigeration.  

The cost of producing artificial ice ranged between $2-$4 per ton as compared with the cost of natural ice being between $5-$10 per ton. The article stressed that producing ice year-round without depending upon the weather was "worthy the attention of capitalists and even those who are engaged in efforts to break up the monopoly of the ice companies in this City." In the south, the Louisiana Ice Manufacturing Company opened in 1868 using the Carrier Machine (forerunner to the air conditioning company), which used carbonic acid as its coolant. By 1913, the first domestic refrigerator was born in Chicago and further diminished the ice harvesting business to those lacking the means to purchase refrigerators or to people living in rural areas who lacked electrification. Although ice harvesting continued in resort areas near lakes or by camping grounds into the 1940s and 50s, the impracticality of this endeavor in the modern age doomed it to a bygone era.

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