Ice Houses and harvesting the ice to fill them now belongs to an almost vanished age, but ice harvesting on New England ponds used to be a big winter business.
From the 1800’s until the 1930’s, during the months of January and February, it was a common sight on the lakes, ponds and some of the rivers to see men and horses harvesting ice and storing it in barn-like icehouses, large and small.
Beginning in the late 20’s, my great grand uncle (one of my great grandmother’s brothers), Alexander Archibald Hamilton (1883-1962), worked at harvesting ice in Orange, Massachusetts. In 1930, according to the Springfield Daily Republican,1 he purchased his partner’s interest in the Independent Ice Company:
Arch Hamilton (far right) and his crew
On average, ice-cutting time did not come until well into January. The icemen wanted ice that was 10 to 12 inches thick. They hoped for good clear ice that was not mixed with sleet or snow. It was really hard work and one had to be rugged, with plenty of muscle. This item in the Springfield Daily Republican2 reports on Arch’s very successful harvest (17 inch thick ice cakes!) in 1934:
Usually, local men were hired for the entire harvest. Being seasonal work, it might occur when the factories were slack and men would be available. Cutting commenced as soon as the ice was a foot or more thick. Then it was strong enough to hold a team of farm horses and humans. Horses were used singly and in pairs with the men.
Ice was sawed loose and floated to a channel cut in the ice which led directly to the lower end of the ramp or ‘run’, which had an endless belt operated by a steam engine ( or horse drawn) to haul the ice up the ramp or ‘run’ to the proper level of the icehouse, where it would slide by force of gravity to its ultimate resting place in one of the rooms in the icehouse.
The icehouses were strange looking affairs. They looked like large unpainted barns, with an opening in the front that went from the ground right up to the ridgepole. As the store of ice built up, this opening was gradually closed with boards.Most of the houses were made of wood (lumber and wages were cheap in those days). The inside walls were made of smooth boards so that no timbers would stick out and take up space. The framing was on the outside and the walls were tied together at the roofline. After a few years the buildings often leaned to one side and sometimes collapsed.
As the ice cakes moved up the ‘run’ they passed under sets of knives. The knives were set one behind the other to trim the ice to uniform thickness. The ice is first packed into the bottom level four feet high, then the staging and ‘run’ is moved up by winch to the next higher four foot level and continue loading each compartment by four foot levels until the house is full. Each four-foot section was covered with sawdust from the nearest sawmill, thus insulating the ice so that it would last all summer.
Eventually, the New England winters began to get milder and it was difficult to harvest any appreciable quantity of ice. As early as 1931, harvests became noticeably smaller and the harvests of 1931-32 and 1932-33 were relatively dismal.
By the late ‘30’s, the ice business was waning, the competition was more desperate, and a lawsuit was filed:3
The old icehouse has disappeared. They went out of business after folks started making artificial ice in convenient sizes.Gone is the husky iceman hauling a block of ice on his shoulder. Many of the icehouses were destroyed by fire, or torn down. Additionally, mechanically-produced ice began to replace natural ice during this period. A while later the home refrigerator that didn’t need ice came on the market.
This was not the end for Arch Hamilton in Orange, however. A second chapter was about to begin, with wife Margie, The Maples Tea House, and the Hamilton Tourist Home and Gardens. Stay tuned for that story.
The iceman would start his regular deliveries around Memorial Day, and continue until Labor Day.
Thanks to GenealogyBank for access to the following newspaper stories:
Recently I came upon this oversized postcard (9 x7!), postmarked November 25, 1950, that Dad sent to my grandmother, while he was on leave in Hawaii. I am amazed that it is in such great condition.
“Dear Mother, I read in the paper that there is quite a lot of snow on the east coast. Here the sun is shining and it is quite warm. On Thanksgiving day I went swimming. I’ll bet you didn’t. ha ha. ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ is playing at the Waikiki theatre. I may go there. I am wearing blues today because I haven’t got any clean whites. Got to send some to the laundry.