Wakeman 2. Harvesting Ice for the Ice Houses

This is the second in the Wakeman series, based on my Grandpa Lyle’s reminiscences.  The voice is his, I have just partially cleaned up the transcription to take out the pauses and interruptions.  Given the heat we’ve been having here in New England, it’s nice to read about something cold!

“This little section of the ancient history is just a matter of historical interest. In the days when I was a youngster at home, it was before there was any such thing as an electrical refrigerator. There were ice boxes. The word refrigerator was almost unknown. And the local meat markets had to have ice to take care of the needs of their meat markets. The meat market man would always have a crew who was, many of them were volunteers, who would help cut ice in the winter time on the river, to be used during the year. And some arrangement whereby they were to have what ice they needed for their labor. It was very little money changed hands in the deal.”

“When the Vermilion River would freeze over and the ice would become a matter of at least six inches (eight to ten inches was much better), they would harvest ice for use during the coming summer. They would see that the snow was all scraped off from the ice, in case there was snow, and it would freeze better with no snow on it. They used a sort of a marking device that was pulled by a horse and the horse would go out on the ice pulling this marking device and it would scratch little furrows in the ice, just perhaps maybe a quarter or a half an inch deep, merely as a marker for the cutters. When they had a large number of, a substantial area marked out, ready for the cutters, then the device was removed and the horse, of course, was no longer on the ice, the men with the saws would begin to saw along the marks there. And they would saw that ice. Sometimes, depending on the thickness of it, sometimes it would weigh a hundred pound block. Sometimes the blocks would be a couple hundred pounds. As they would saw these big blocks of ice out, an ice tong would be attached to it and rope on the ice tong. With the aid of the horse, the big blocks of ice would be hauled up onto the mainland and loaded into a wagon. It was before — I don’t think there was any trucks ever used because they were — it was a little before the day that trucks were common. The wagons would haul the ice to an ice house to be stored.”

This picture is not from the Vermilion, but a river in Canada.  It shows part of the ice cutting process in the 1890s.   I wish I had a picture from the Wakeman family showing ice cutting, but I expect that they didn’t have a camera quite that early.  (Picture from the Wikipedia Commons.)

“For quite some years, for some reason, an ice house had been built on the saw mill property that Dad owned. And it was, we called it the Red Ice House. And it was quite a little ways from where the ice was harvested. I say quite a little ways, maybe half a mile or so. But anyway, the ice would be hauled up there in the winter time. A layer of sawdust would be placed on the earth, then the entire floor of the building which was probably some, let’s say twenty by thirty feet — and when that layer was filled on the floor, about two inches of saw dust would be placed over the whole thing. Then a second layer of ice blocks would be placed on that. And tier after tier of ice blocks would be built there until that was perhaps as high as fifteen feet or more from the base to the top. And the upper ones was always, the blocks of ice were hoisted up there with a rope and a pulley and placed. And when it came time to, in the summer time, to take it out for use, it had all the — it was reversed. They’d lower it from the upper ones there and, as a rule, they tried to harvest sufficient amount of ice so it would go through the summer. And I do not recall any summer that they completely ran out of ice. They’d get down maybe to the last tier. But the meat markets had to have this ice to preserve their meats.”

“And on the days that the market would refill their market coolers, people could buy whatever ice they wanted — 25 pound cake, or 50 cake or hundred, or whatever they wanted. Maybe they’d, twice a week the market cooler would be filled and you’d take a little express cart or any, any con-, any way you wanted and wait while they were bringing the ice up to put it in the meat market. And as soon as the market cooler was filled — they always brought up extra — it would be sold to people who wanted it. In your own home, we did not have — I think it was about 1906, it could have been 1905. We had no refrigeration of any sort — no ice box. And Uncle Bert bought, from the manufacturing plant at Kendallville, an ice box — and shipped it to us. And that was our first ice box.”

“I will explain something further. On the shores of Lake Erie at Lorain, Huron, Sandusky, all along there, they would have enormous big ice houses that would hold carloads and carloads of ice. And it was harvested there in pretty much the same manner as it was harvested at Wakeman on the Vermilion River. And it would be stored in those big ice houses and the railroad spur was in — they would have a series of anywhere from maybe three to six of those big ice houses right along a railroad track. And a railroad car would be put in there and they would load it with ice and cover it. It would be properly covered with sawdust. And that would be shipped to Tennessee, New Orleans, or any place. The entire carload would be shipped south. Of course there was a substantial melting amount. But even then, it provided ice for the southern cities that was available no other way. And all of the cities along the great lakes had their own ice house and their customers that depended on them to provide them with ice for cooling.”

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2 comments on “Wakeman 2. Harvesting Ice for the Ice Houses
  1. Pat says:

    Thanks Nancy, it didn’t really make me feel cooler either, but it was fun to think back to a different way of doing things. My grandfather was born in 1896, so his reminiscences would be from the early 1900s and I would guess that harvesting ice from lakes and rivers went on into the mid-1930s. Interesting to think about ice as a crop, isn’t it?

  2. Nancy says:

    Thanks for posting your Grampa Lyle’s memories of collecting ice. You don’t mention the years. When we visited my aunt a while ago and toured the area where she and my father grew up, we drove by a lake and she told us that beginning in hhis early teens my father had helped cut and haul the ice from that lake for summer use. I had never heard a description of how it was done, so this was very interesting. My dad would have begun helping in the mid-1920s. Thanks again for sharing. I wish I could say it makes me feel cool to think about winter and the ice….

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