Essential Ice

Frozen Lake Candlewood in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Frozen Lake Candlewood (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Right about now, most of us in the northern states are holding up a white flag in surrender to this seemingly never ending, bitterly cold winter.  But what you might find interesting is that not so long ago (into the early 1900’s) this frigid weather would have been considered a blessing, something to be very grateful for.  You see, many of us have forgotten as we reach into our Frigidaire to grab a few ice cubes, just how precious and essential ice was to our ancestors.

Massachusetts 1850 ice harvest-wikipedia-A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Massachusetts 1850 ice harvest (image: wikipedia)

When you consider what is presently stored in your refrigerator and freezer, and the foods that line the isles at the local grocery; some in enclosed in freezer cases, some in enormous refrigerated cubicles, and some laid on top of refrigerated grates, you’ll have an idea of the value of cold storage.  Now, think about having to use large blocks of ice instead, to keep produce and meats from spoiling while being transported and for storage during warmer months.

Children gathering around the ice wagon-A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Image of Children gathering around the ice wagon

Because electrical refrigeration wasn’t readily available for most families until the early 1900’s, ice harvesting was not only an essential practice for farmers needing to preserve meat and dairy products at the farm (approx. 1/2 ton of ice needed per cow) and during transit, but was equally necessary for families to be able to store (in ice boxes) this produce once it arrived in their home.  (A ton of ice could cost over $7 in the 1800’s, which further explains the value of self-harvesting for the average farmer). So how was ice harvested, and where was it stored so that it would keep throughout the summer months?  Following is a brief summation of the process, though I recommend you visit this website and view the video of a Pennsylvania harvest in 1919:

Horse plowing ice -Greater West Bloomfield-in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Horse plowing ice in preparation for harvest (Image: Greater West Bloomfield)

Clear the ice: Snow would slow the thickening process, so it was removed during the weeks prior to harvesting to better expose the ice to the freezing temperatures.  Ice thickness was measured by a hand drill, and considered ready when it reached 8 inches or more.

Scoring the ice: Horses (essential to the entire ice harvesting process) were harnessed and brought out on the ice dragging a sharp blade that would draw straight lines in the surface, followed by men using ice saws to cut the sections.  Both the horses and the men wore metal shoes with spikes (called crampons) to prevent them from slipping on the ice.

Ice harvesting at Cascade Pond in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Ice harvesting at Cascade Pond (image:

Cutting the ice: Men would cut along the score lines creating long rectangles of ice, that were then split into more manageable 16 inch blocks using a chisel type tool.  A long pike pole was used to push the ice through the water to a ramp on the shore, where a horse drawn wagon awaited.

Transporting to ice house: Ice blocks were dragged up the shoreline ramp with grapple hooks, then lifted with heavy tongs onto the wagon to be transported to the ice house for storage.

Storage in the ice house: Once the wagons arrived at the ice house, the horses were unharnessed from the wagons and hitched to a pulley that lifted the blocks (some weighing in excess of 200 lbs.) into the storage building.  Layers of saw dust were spread between the ice blocks to prevent them from melting together and to insulate them while stored.

Crampons for ice walking-Ledyard Sawmill-A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Crampons for ice walking (image: Ledyard Sawmill)

When I think that less than a hundred years ago, I could have been worrying about adding ice to my ice box, and deciding if I could offer a visiting friend a sliver in their drink on a hot summer day, it helps me to appreciate how much easier our lives have become (as well as for the horses).  Perhaps the saying “A chip off the old block” may refer more to chipping some ice off a block than similarities in personality?  Either way, I don’t think I’ll ever look at an ice cube the same way again . . .


  1. This brings back memories. While urban populations had electricity in the early 1900’s, farmers did not start to receive it until after the Rural Electrification Act was passed in 1935, thanks to FDR. Many rural residents did not have electricity until the forties or fifties. Imagine, no electric irons, washing machines, toasters, fans, etc.

    In the lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas where our farm was located, ice came in from colder regions on freight trains, packed in straw and was stored in an ice house downtown. Every few days or so, we drove in to pick up a new block for our ice box. The water from the melting ice collected at the bottom of the ice box and had to be frequently emptied, especially on the 100 plus degree days that occurred often in our long summers.

    With electricity, came the option for telephone service. I was a senior in high school when our first telephone was installed.

    • Wow, Jean! Thanks for sharing your story! Researching the history of ice harvesting–and watching that 1919 U-tube video–gave me a glimpse of life less than a hundred years ago, and made me realize how much we take for granted today. Can you imagine today’s youth trying to live without a cell phone, let alone electricity . . .

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