The Coldest Harvest

More than a century ago, ice cut from rivers and ponds was a cash crop

Ice field

In large commercial operations, crews of hundreds of men and dozens of teams of horses worked the ice field while more men stacked ice in the icehouse. When the local workforce was inadequate, outside workers were transported in to get the job done.

Image from the June 1880 U.S. Census.

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Ice: Today it’s as close as the automatic ice maker in your kitchen. But throughout the 19th century, long before the advent of electric refrigeration, ice was a commodity to be harvested just like corn or cotton.

Frederic Tudor, the son of a Boston lawyer, is credited with being the first entrepreneur to build a business empire out of ice. In the early 1800s, Tudor hit on the idea of harvesting ice from Massachusetts ponds and shipping it to ports in New York, Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans.

The ice trade flourished, and Tudor and his competitors were soon selling thousands of tons of ice to restaurants, hotels and homeowners up and down the East Coast. By the 1830s, Tudor was shipping ice to the Caribbean, England and as far away as Calcutta, India (it took four months for a sailing ship loaded with 180 tons of ice to travel from Boston to Calcutta – but it still reached its destination with 100 tons of ice). By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, icehouses in the Hudson River Valley were harvesting about 3 million tons of ice each winter.

The railroads proved a boon to the ice industry. In 1848-49, the New York & Harlem Railroad was extended from New York City to an area known as the Ice Pond. There, as many as 200 men were employed each winter to harvest and load ice aboard rail cars for the 70-mile trip to New York City. The industry not only provided welcome work for local farmers, but gave them an opportunity to hire out their teams of workhorses as well.

With the introduction of the icebox in the mid-1800s, town folk could buy ice from vendors who began selling ice door-to-door from horse-drawn wagons. But in the years before ice vendors reached rural America, farm families had just two ways to keep food cold during warm weather. If there was a spring on their property, they could build a spring house to store perishable foods such as butter and milk. Or they could build an icehouse to store blocks of ice they harvested each winter from a nearby pond or river.

Farmers often harvested and stored ice for their own use in icehouses built of stone or lumber. The walls were frequently insulated with several inches of sawdust, and sawdust or straw was packed around the ice as it was unloaded. Several icehouses still stand today, including a limestone icehouse and dairy on the historic Jacob Bushong home in the Shenandoah Valley, one at a 125-year-old Amish homestead in Nappanee, Ind., and an historic octagonal wood icehouse on the Croft Farm near Cherry Hill, N.J.

As America’s population moved west, ice harvesting spread across the Midwest and Upper Midwest, wherever winters were cold enough to freeze ponds and rivers. In some communities, local residents worked together to harvest ice and store it in a community icehouse. In other areas, local businessmen such as George Lentz, New Point, Mo., harvested and sold ice as part of their general merchandise businesses.

Still others followed Tudor’s lead by thinking big. In eastern Nebraska, a company called Crete Mills began harvesting ice from the Big Blue River in 1890. The company soon built two lakes beside the river, and constructed a large icehouse to meet demand from the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. During the season, as many as 75 to 100 men were employed to cut and haul the ice, and the company shipped as many as 100 cars of ice daily.

In most areas, the ice harvest lasted less than a month, conducted during the coldest part of January or February when the ice had reached a thickness of 10 to 20 inches. (Read an excerpt from the 1880 U.S. Census about the ice harvest in Maine.) The crews might start with horse-drawn scrapers to remove the snow and prepare the ice surface, then follow with a horse-drawn marker to mark out a large square of ice. Next, the marker teeth were used to cut about 3 inches into the ice, inscribing the ice field into smaller rectangles typically measuring 24 by 30 inches.

Then came the ice plows, each drawn by a single horse and featuring a long, heavy beam set with eight separate blades (or shares), each notched at the bottom. Ice plows were used to cut about two-thirds the depth of the ice, so that blocks could be sawed or broken off with hand tools. An ice plow with short teeth was called a marker plow, and was used to mark the area in a grid pattern. The marker plow had a guide attached to it to keep each line parallel. Chisels, hooks, saws, sieves, break-off bars and tongs were also used.

Including horse-drawn implements, as many as 60 different tools were used in the 1800s to harvest ice. Hand-held crosscut ice saws measuring more than 5 feet in length and breaking bars were commonly used to finish cutting or breaking blocks of ice loose. Ice harvesters used long-handled ice pikes and gaffs to push blocks through the newly opened waterway to a loading area, and ice tongs to help load ice in wagons. Teams of horses and sleighs were used to fill local icehouses.

More inventions followed. In 1867, Detroit inventor J.B. Sutherland invented a refrigerated railroad car that stored blocks of ice on either end, and used hanging flaps to control the flow of cold air. By the 1890s, commercial ice harvesters had converted to steam power to harvest, transport and store blocks of ice in massive ice storage buildings.

One last invention would ultimately spell the demise of the ice harvesting industry. The first Kelvinator electric refrigerator was introduced in 1914. By the early 1930s, homes across America had replaced old-fashioned iceboxes with electric refrigerators. FC 

For more information: The National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, 630 Hall of Fame Dr., Bonner Springs, KS 66012; (913) 721-1075; www.aghalloffame.com. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m., Sunday; open mid-March through November; closed major holidays. 

Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet, and a regular contributor to GRIT magazine. He grew up on a crop and cattle operation in western Nebraska, and now lives in Missouri. Contact him by email at gschleicher1@kc.rr.com.