History on ice

Winter harvest once was king

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

Just
The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — One hundred years ago the Messenger would have carried news every late March about the end of the ice harvest.

Before the creation of modern refrigeration, foods were kept cold by placing them on blocks of ice both at home and in businesses. The harvesting of ice was an industry unto itself, ranging from farmers who cut and stored ice for their farms to companies who shipped ice to cities, some in other parts of the world.

There were companies that made the ice cutting equipment, and others who delivered the ice to homes, while still more companies made the ice chests where the ice and food were kept.

In St. Albans J. J. Hunt had a company that would cut ice to fill the icehouses of various businesses. On the morning of Jan. 20, 1891, a Messenger reporter caught up with him in the yard of The Beef Company, where he was overseeing the filling of the icehouse with 130 tons of ice.

Here’s a portion of that report:

“’This has been a splendid winter for our business,’” Hunt remarked, as the heavy cakes of extract of Lake Champlain slid rapidly, one after the other, into the upper story – ‘rather in contrast to last year. When we filled this house in the winter of 1890 it was rainy, the ground around here was muddy and we worked at a great disadvantage; but now – well there couldn’t be any better weather for getting ice.'”

That winter Hunt employed 25 to 40 teams of harvesters.

“The Bascombs and others are still busy cutting at the Bay, and the ice averages finely in quality, most of the blocks being clear and as good as were ever brought into the village,” the Messenger reported. There were “a steady procession of ice-loaded teams on the road between here and the Bay.”

In the more rural communities of the county, ice harvesting likely remained a communal effort, with farmers assisting each other to bring in the ice needed to keep their milk and meat cool in the summer months. Towns regularly relayed the onset of harvesting and the thickness of the ice being gathered in reports to the Messenger.

After plowing the snow, the men would bore into the ice at several locations to find where it was thickest. It was also best to cut upstream from the icehouse, so the ice could be floated rather than dragged.

The ice was stored in layers inside the icehouses, typically separated by sawdust. Businesses would construct houses that could hold hundreds, even thousands of tons of ice.

In 1906, J. J. Hunt, just one of several ice harvesting companies in St. Albans, harvested 4,000 tons of ice.

The harvesting was dangerous work, and both men and horses risked falling through the ice. In 1890, the Messenger announced that William Packnard’s double team of horses in Colchester had gone through the ice while plowing and had drowned.

In addition, to keeping the horses, which were used to move the ice blocks as well as plow away the snow, from falling in, crews also had to clean behind the horses, a job usually assigned to the youngest person on the crew, according to “America’s Icemen,” a book about the industry written by Joseph C. Jones, Jr., of Shelburne.

Nationally, ice harvesting employed thousands of men, particularly along the rivers of southern Maine where the ease of shipping created one of the largest ice harvesting operations in the country. In 1890, the Messenger reported there were 5,000 men at work harvesting ice from the Kennebec River alone. This ice was exported as far away as India, according to Jones.

It was a highly profitable business. In 1890, ice was selling for $3 a ton, while the Messenger reported the cost of harvesting it in Maine at thirty cents a ton. From those numbers, “some idea of the fortunes of lucky ice harvesters in the Pine Tree State can be formed,” the Messenger suggested.

In 1906, the Messenger reported on an anti-trust suit brought by the New York attorney general against the American Ice Company, alleging the company had gained control of the ice fields in Maine and deliberately reduced the size of the harvest, driving up prices the following summer and allowing the company to earn profits of 71 percent.

There also was concern about speculation increasing prices for consumers. On Jan. 11, 1893, the Messenger expressed the view that speculation would not be concern that year, while also asking the ice merchants to keep prices low come summer.

“This form of speculation is too hazardous for the ordinary investor, and the disastrous results of two summers ago, when ice was stored in great masses on the northern rivers and streams, only to run away in water while in transportation to the place of demand, have put an end to speculators’ visions of money -getting through water touched by Jack Frost’s breath,” the Messenger wrote.

“From St. Albans Bay shore to North Hero is a crystal floor that icemen say is perfect for harvesting. From eight to fourteen inches in thickness, clear as glass, the ice garnered this year is of surpassing excellence,” the Messenger added. “King Winter has kindly provided for the icemen’s gratification and may he in turn be lenient with the families that during the summer depend upon the crystal cakes to make the heat more tolerable.”

Esther Bombardier Fregeau, 102, of St. Albans, was among the many homeowners to whom ice was delivered. She kept her ice chest on the porch, where the dripping water from the melting ice created less of a mess, she explained to the Messenger in an interview earlier this year.

The ice delivery was a big deal for children. “The ice man would give all the kids ice,” recalled her daughter Shirley Richards. “If the pieces were big, she’d make us give them to her for the freezer.”

In “America’s Icemen,” Jones reported that children following ice trucks, sometimes hitching rides, was a common sight in cities in the summer.

With the onset of electric refrigeration, the ice harvesting industry came to an end in the 1920s, although harvesting persisted in rural areas not yet reached by electricity.