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Natural Ice

July 2024
2min read

Only fifty years ago, the cutting of natural ice in America was big business, but today it has almost vanished. Gone are the huge icehouses, so cavernous that clouds formed inside them and rain fell. Gone are the itinerant ice cutters, and forgotten their skills; the simple tools of their trade, like those on the opposite page, have already become antique-shop items.

Until the 1800’s, Americans were content to cool their food and drink in their cellars or springhouses; an iced drink in summertime was a strange and wonderful experience to be enjoyed only in the big city. But by the late summer of 1850, James Fenimore Cooper was writing in his diary: “Ice at the table still. We Americans probably use more ice than most people …” The shipping industry was handling! more tons of ice than of any other commodity save cotton.

By that time, of course, every farm with a pond or a stream nearby had an icehouse of its own—often doublewalled and insulated with hay, the ice being packed in sawdust, to be rinsed off later. The commercial icehouses, built of double-walled brick, were often as much as five hundred feet long, with railroad spurs leading right to their doors. With the problem of storage solved, the business was ready for coastal and even overseas deliveries.

One of the earliest recorded shipments was from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1799; the records simply say that the voyage was successful, which means that some of the ice was left when the ship docked. There was no mention of profit. The first man to make the iceshipping business pay was Frederic Tudor, who in 1806 sent 130 tons on the brig Favorite from Boston to Martinique in the West Indies. At the close of the War of 1812, Tudor made a deal to supply the Cuban government with ice; by 1833 he had contracts in Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta. On the eve of the Civil War, Boston, the center of the trade, was sending nearly 150,000 tons of ice a year to fifty-three different countries.

The men who supplied this growing industry—hardy men who each winter cut the ice from ponds and lakes and floated it to the icehouses—were a fabulous race, akin to the river men and lumberjacks of the time. In mid-century the ponds around Boston employed about a thousand of them; in the whole of New England there were perhaps as many as ten thousand. Their salaries commonly included room and board, and since there were only about twenty or thirty days out of the year suitable for cutting ice, the gathering and managing of work crews must have been a problem.

The work itself demanded a variety of skills. Where the ice was covered with snow, the first step was to scrape it off with a horse-drawn snow plane. Next the area to be “harvested"—in the larger ponds, a huge square six hundred feet on a side—was surveyed and its four boundary lines marked out with a hand cutter. Then came a cutter with two runners forty-four inches apart; one blade was a guide plane, the other a large-toothed edge which made a preliminary groove two inches deep. This implement crisscrossed the ice, tracing a gridded pattern on the surface. It was followed by another twin-bladed cutter that cut more deeply. Finally came an all-iron ice plow, its blades adjustable to within four inches of the bottom of the ice. The final cutting was done with hand tools—long-bladed saws and long-handled spades and fork bars. Large sections of the six-hundred-foot square were cut away, and the men rode them like rafts (see picture above), dividing them into smaller pieces as they floated toward the icehouse.

Modern refrigeration killed the natural-ice business, of course. It spelled the doom of the family icehouse as well, but a few of them are left, and the pleasure of using one’s own clear pond-water for chilling a summer drink has not been entirely lost. In Vermont there are even a few ponds that produce enough natural ice to maintain small commercial icehouses, and enough high-school boys and antiquarians can still be found to bring in the harvest for them. The horses that pulled the plows, planes, and cutters are, alas, gone, but the men and boys who work the ponds know the thrill of striking a scored sheet of ice with a chisel that rings in the winter air and cuts clean and sharp.

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