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Adirondack ice harvests

Saturday, September 22, 2012 - Updated: 8:10 PM

In a recent public lecture I was giving on Adirondack tools, I showed a small ice pick. I shared the story of the "ice man cometh," the days when blocks of ice from the Adirondack ponds and lakes were delivered, first by horse and wagon and later by the ice truck, to each home. There is a story behind that labor-intensive enterprise from the preparing of the ponds, the cutting of the ice, and the delivery to the homes. Some in the groups I talk with have never heard the story of refrigeration in days gone by.

In the days of pre-electric refrigerators large chunks of ice from the waters were chipped to the required sizes to fit the ice box by use of the ice pick and carried by ice tongs to the kitchen ice boxes. A card with the block size printed on it was placed in the window by the housewife to let the ice man know what size was wanted that day.

Keeping food preserved in a wooden ice box involved the entire family. Often the Adirondack men were involved in the cutting of the ice chunks out of the pond or lake; it was a community project each winter. The children, especially on a hot summer day, watched for the ice man who would chop off a small ice chunk for each child -- a treat as good as ice cream. The job of emptying the water-catching pan under the ice box which filled up with water as the ice melted, cooling the food, was also assigned to a responsible child. Woe to the child whose mother found a stream of over-flowed water snaking across her kitchen floor.

I found a photograph in a December 1921 newspaper that told the story of getting in the ice. Three men were pictured standing on a pond covered with ice. The snow had been removed and a straight line could be seen depicting the cutting line. Two of the men were using the long cutting saws that were pulled up and down with a wooden t-shaped handle. Another man was standing nearby with a long pike pole with heavy iron prongs on the end to move the blocks of ice.

In my tool collection, I have the ice saw and the pike pole, but that is not the entire story. I have the previously mentioned ice pick and ice tongs along with a spud, aka a busting bar or splitting chisel, and a needlebar which was used to allow water to rise to the surface. They all play a part in ice harvesting.

Cutting the ice from the Adirondack ponds and lakes took cooperation and manpower. When the ice froze to a thickness of 12 to 14 inches or more, the call went out to form an ice-cutting bee. The snow was cleaned as it fell to keep the layers of ice frozen together and the day before the cut an ice plow, if you had one, was used to cut slits part way through the ice by running it back and forth, forming squares of ice.

On the cutting day, the ice saw, much like a cross-cut saw, was pulled up and down on two sides of the ice field, cutting a channel. The spud or the needlebar was then used to snap off the blocks of ice. A wise cutter tied a long rope to his needlebar in case it was dropped into the water and sunk to the bottom.

The blocks of ice weighed up to 300 pounds and it took two men to lift them out of the water to load on the horse-drawn bobsled to go to the ice house. The ice house was often located close to the pond to avoid a long hard trip with the heavy ice. The ice house walls were filled with softwood sawdust, which has air cells for better insulation than hardwood sawdust. The ice blocks are also packed in sawdust to keep them from melting and so they can be used throughout the year. An added bonus was the constructing of coolers in each ice house for the storing of perishables.

Adirondack ice harvesting is only done mostly for shows on a limited basis today although at one time it was a major Adirondack industry, employing many and supplying our nation's ice needs. Not only was ice needed in the homes but the railroad companies purchased tons of ice for their needs. No longer does the ice man cometh, except in our good memories of the Adirondack past.

DON WILLIAMS was born and raised

in the Adirondacks. He is a retired

Gloversville school principal and magazine

author. He lives in Gloversville.


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