Farm Collector Blogs > First Things

A rare glimpse at an ice harvest

by Leslie McManus


Tags: ice harvest, farm life,

For the amateur historian interested in early farm practices in America, a surprising number of resources give a glimpse at life 100 years ago. Vintage magazines and newspapers, journals, letters, photos and tales passed from generation to generation help us flesh out a picture that’s probably fairly accurate. But we are inevitably left hungry for more – more detail, more context, more description of the minutia.

So when I recently got a look at a 10-minute video of a 1919 ice harvest, I almost quit breathing. The video was created at the end of the silent movie era so it has no sound. But the cameraman knew his stuff. The story was carefully scripted from beginning to end, from gauging ice depth to determine suitability for harvest to loading the blocks into a storage building using a very novel horse-powered elevator.

To see an actual ice harvest underway is remarkable (see for yourself at www.FarmCollector.com/1919iceharvestvideo). Bonus thrills came from careful examination of everything else … style of dress, the horses’ studded shoes, the midday routine of feedbags and blankets for the horses, the workers’ lunch break (one man even used a fairly new contraption of the day – a thermos-style flask), the relationship of the site supervisor and the workers, the wagons used to haul mammoth blocks of ice, the handsome manor house and storage facility.

Like a wormhole in the universe, the video gives an astonishing glimpse of a scene irretrievably lost to time. Equipment we prize today as “antiques” represented state-of-the-art technology in 1919. The workers and horses that we tend to take for granted when considering farm practices of a century ago became real. We see the horses’ breath as they pull a heavy load, and watch the workers pour a cup of hot coffee during a lunch break taken outdoors on a bright winter day. The men chatted, joked perhaps. No one jumped in the pickup to run errands over the lunch hour; no one pulled out a cell phone to call home.

If you have a computer, view the video. If you don’t, enlist the help of your local librarian. Be prepared to be mesmerized. But that’s okay. When it comes to old iron, looking backward is generally the right direction.  FC