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Centennial Monograph: Ice Houses


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Centennial Monograph: Ice Houses


Before the widespread availability of refrigeration one of the only way to keep things cool was with ice. Fresh water supplies, such as the Assabet River flowing through town, was a source of ice during the winter and a major industry grew up around this natural resource.


Ralph L. Sheridan





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Ice Houses and Ice Harvesting

Icehouses and harvesting ice to fill them now belongs to an almost vanished age, but ice harvesting on New England ponds used to be a big winter business.

In the 1800's and early 1900's, during the months of January and February, it was a common sight on the lakes, ponds and some of the rivers to see men and horses harvesting ice and storing it in barnlike icehouses, large and small, There was an occasional year when December was a cold month with below zero temperature, and the ice harvest was completed in December. But, on the average, ice-cutting time did not come until well into January. The icemen wanted ice that was 10 to 12” thick. They hoped for good clear ice that was not mixed with sleet or snow.

It was real hard work and one had to be rugged, with plenty of muscle. It could also be very hazardous work, While the temperature remained in the teens it was good weather for putting up ice, as the colder it was when packed in the icehouses, the better the quality when it was taken out the following summer.

When a boy was twelve years old or thereabouts, it was perfectly logical that he have two opinions about the annual ice harvest. If you were brought up on a farm in the northland back in the days of ice-boxes instead of electric refrigerators, you can probably guess what I mean.

Ice-cutting being hard, cold work; but when a fellow thought of June, July and August and the six quart ice-cream freezer, he realized there had to be ice before he could enjoy ice cream.

You just don't know' what cold is until you have worked on a pond at zero or below with a stiff wind blowing from the northwest. Dress for such an outdoor job on a cold day as follows: heavy wool socks; boots and overshoes; two wool sweaters over a wool shirt; an interlined double-breasted overcoat, knee length; thick wool cap with ear flaps down; knitted wool scarf wrapped around face and neck; a pair of wool mittens, and over these a pair of leather mittens.

Usually, local men were hired for the entire harvest. Being seasonal work it might occur when the factories were slack and men would be available. The large ice companies had a crew that went from one job to another as the season progressed. They lived in boarding houses, usually set up nearby the pond.

One such boarding house was built near White Pond by the Independent Ice Company, who cut ice on White Pond for many years. When the icehouse, completely filled with ice and valued at $18,000, was totally destroyed by fire on February 3, 1922 [1], the boarding house was sold to the Maynard Rod and Gun Club who occupied it until the early 1940's when it was taken over by the United States Government as it was within the boundaries of land taken over by them for the ammunition depot of World War II. During the war the building was used as an officer's club. It is now a private home.

The annual harvest of ice at White Pond lowered the water level 6 inches.

Cutting commenced as soon as the ice was a foot or more thick. Then it was strong enough to hold a team of farm horses and humans. At seven o'clock the whistle sounded and the men moved out onto the ice, or to their places in the icehouses. Horses were used singly and in pairs with the men.

If there was snow on the ice it was necessary to scrape the surface clear. One job was holding the scraper. Scraping served two purposes. It removed the accumulated snow so that the ice would freeze to a greater depth (12 inches or more was considered desirable) and made possible the marking and grooving of the ice so that blocks of it could be broken off. The scraper was pulled by a pair of horses and the snow was dumped onto the shore.

Next, the cutter and groover was drawn by a horse across the icy surface scratching parallel lines two feet apart and six inches deep. Then it was drawn at right angles and lines made forming rectangles or a sort of checkerboard pattern.

Next came the sawers. A big ice saw which needed two men to operate it. The long handle was fixed at right angles to the blade. One small hole, big enough to take the saw, was chopped in the ice. After that the ax was laid aside and the saws took over. Long strips of ice were sawed loose and floated to a channel cut in the ice which led directly to the lower end of the ramp or "run" which had an endless belt operated by a steam engine (or horse drawn) to haul the ice up the ramp or "run" to the proper level of the icehouse, where it would slide by force of gravity to its ultimate resting place in one of the rooms in the icehouse.

The icehouses were strange looking affairs, They looked like large unpainted barns, with an opening in the front that went from the ground right up to the ridgepole. As the store of ice built up, this opening was gradually closed with boards. The commercial icehouses were divided into compartments. Each compartment was insulated with a double wall which was filled with sawdust.

Most of the houses were made of wood (lumber and wages were cheap in those days.) The inside walls were made of smooth boards so that no timbers would stick out and take up space. The framing was on the outside and the walls were tied together at the roofline. After a few years the buildings often leaned to one side and sometimes collapsed.

Many farms had icehouses and some had to haul the ice from the pond, The cut ice would be floated to shore, hoisted onto horse-drawn sleds, and hauled to the icehouse, sometimes more than a mile away. (During an extremely dry period they would melt the ice to water the cattle.)

As the ice cakes moved up the run they passed under sets of knives. The knives were set one behind the other to trim the ice to uniform thickness. The ice is first packed into the bottom level four feet high, then the staging and "run" is moved up by winch to the next higher four foot level and continue loading each compartment by four foot levels until the house is full. Each four foot section was covered with sawdust from the nearest sawmill, thus insulating the ice so that it would last all summer.

As stated earlier in this story, work began at seven o'clock. At noon the horses were watered and fed and the workmen ate lunch in a shed heated with a Iarge stove with the stovepipe running the length of the center of the shed. The dinner pails were hung near the stove pipe to keep the contents warm. (The dinner pail of those days was pail and not a lunch kit. The coffee or tea was in the bottom of the pail. Above it was a tray six or seven Inches deep in which was the main course, real he-man sandwiches or the equivalent. Above that was a shallow tray for a large piece of pie or other dessert. Then the cover, and inverted on the ring soldered to the cover was a tin dipper. Such a pail, with attachments was at least a foot tall and had a long bail.)

After dinner, smokes for the smokers, a few comments on the weather, some tall yarns, and then one o'clock and back to work.

Five o'clock was quitting time and then home to a hot supper and bed to rest for the next day. (Earnings $1.50 for the day.) It was often necessary during zero weather to keep men on the job all night to keep the channels from freezing over.

Some of the hazards of the job: an ice cutter on the pond might slip into the water in zero temperature. If he didn't get pneumonia he was lucky. Or, a 100 lb. cake of ice might escape and land on his toes or leg. Occasionally, a horse or team of horses would fall through the ice and cause considerable delay and excitement until they were rescued.

One of the first establishments for the storage of ice was in the Maynard territory [2]. In 1849, upon the advent of transportation facilities (The Boston and Maine Railroad - Marlboro Branch) a large icehouse was erected by Nathaniel J. Wyeth, where the Front Street houses now stand. The building was of brick and held 40,000 tons of ice which was cut on the mill pond and shipped to Boston. Modern machinery was used in the work.

About 1864 it ceased to be used, and the Assabet Mfg, Company purchased and tore down the building, using the brick for mill construction. The granite arch and keystone may be seen over the door of Number 12 mill near Main Street. [3]

In 1871, Haynes Brothers (A.G. & W.A.) had an icehouse valued at $100. Ben Smith had one valued at $200. [4]

The Independent Ice Company of Boston cut ice for many years on White Pond:

Jan, 6, 1911: Ice is being cut on White pond and a good crop is reported.
Feb. 24, 1921: The Independent Ice Company plan to start harvesting ice at White Pond sometime next week. The company is presently filling the houses in Westbrook, N.H. and took tools from the White Pond houses to New Hampshire. [5]

This company of the Boston Ice Company had icehouses on nearly every large pond and lake in eastern Massachusetts, southern Maine and New Hampshire. They cut ice for many years on the Mill Pond and had icehouses located on the shore in the rear of where the Sudbury Street blocks are now built.

Nov 24, 1905: An ice house is being built at Puffer's Pond where a Finnish party will furnish the people of his own nationality with ice next summer.

J.R. Bent had large icehouses on the Assabet River just across the railroad tracks from the town pumping station (where many of the old timers of today, including the author, learned to swim.) He cut ice above the Ben Smith Dam.

C.C. Murray cut there for several years:

Mar 31, 1915: Luke Mason has left the employ of C. C, Murray, Iceman, for work in West Acton.
Mar 31, 1915: C.C. Murray is to build a bath house on the Assabet River near his ice houses [6]

He was followed by John Zaniewski:

Dec 5, 1919: The new icehouse built by contractor Joseph Foster for John Zaniewski is completed. It is situated on the side of the one destroyed by fire and has a capacity of 6000
Jan 9, 1920: John Zaniewski cut some ice for immediate use during the week. He is to harvest 750 tons within the week, which will fill his new house on the site of the one destroyed by fire near the torn pumping station. The new house is completed and in readiness to be filled. [7]

The Riverside Cooperative Society had an icehouse in the rear of the Concord, Maynard & Hudson Street Railway barns and cut ice above Ben Smith dam.

Fred H. Taylor cut ice above Russell's Bridge on the Assabet River:

May 28, 1915: The selectmen have awarded the contract for icing the Luke S. Brooks drinking fountain on Main Street to Fred W. Taylor and Whitney and Hastings. W & H will furnish the ice during June and July and Taylor during August and September. C.C. Murray made no application for the contract.

Jan 26, 1919: Local ice dealers took advantaee of the recent cold spell and harvested ice to supply local trade. F.W. Taylor cut 6 inch ice in Stow, while Whitney and Hastings cut 5 inch ice in South Acton. As their supply was very limited the local dealers hailed the cold wave with delight. [8]

Whitney and Hastings harvested ice on the pond near the bridge in South Acton:

Jan 2, 1921: W. & H. began harvesting ice crop in So. Acton Tuesday. There are about 30 men employed and it is expected it will take a week to fill the houses. The ice averages 11 inches and it is the best quality cut in a number of years. It is expected the firm will house between 4500 and 5000 tons.

W.O. Strout cut ice on the river and in South Acton:

Jan 28, 1921: Local ice dealers are harvesting a 12 inch crop. W.A, Strout began cutting Wednesday and there were more than 100 men on hand applying for work. Fred Taylor began the same day and had the same experience. [10]

J. Leo Comeau was in the ice business from 1907:

Dec 24, 1909: John Comeau is building an addition to his icehouse up the river. [11] He also cut ice in West Concord and East Acton.

He made deliveries of ice until May 1965, when he suffered a heart attack and died a few days later. He can truly be said to be "The Last of an Era". And the youngsters of today never have enjoyed the privilege of knowing a real iceman. His was a cool business on a hot day in July.

For many years he had a horse drawn wagon, painted red, with his name and the word ice in large letters on the sides. Later he purchased a second-hand truck chassis and mounted the body of his wagon on it. He drove the truck over 200000 miles.

He'd split off a piece of ice from a cake in the wagon, grab it with the big curved ice tongs, sling it over his shoulder and march up two or three flights of stairs to fill one of those old-fashioned refrigerators. He wore a rubber poncho to keep from getting soaked with ice water as it dripped under the blazing sun. One of his most indispensable tools was a whiskbroom to brush off sawdust before delivering the ice.

The customer would display a card in the window. These cards were supplied by the iceman. The customer would turn it to the size of the piece they wanted and the iceman could cut the right size of piece. Some of the old time refrigerators (iceboxes) had a lid on the top which covered the compartment where the ice was kept. Some had a door in front for the ice. They were lined with zinc and insulated.

The large markets and provision stores had big refrigerators to store meats. Dairies are the only ones today that use ice in their trucks.

Modern housewives can thank their stars that they don't have to mess around with an icebox. It was a necessary nuisance 40 years ago. Somebody was always forgetting to empty the big flat pan that held the melted ice water. When this receptacle overflowed it flooded the kitchen floor and the water seeped down into the apartment below.

When Leo started in the business a customer could get 20 lbs, for 5 cents. The smallest
amount buyable now is 25 lbs., which is priced at 25 cents. And it is artificial ice.

The old icehouses have disappeared. They went out of business after folks started making artificial ice in convenient sizes. A while later the home refrigerator that didn't need ice came on the market. Today's methods of keeping humans and their food cool, is probably much more efficient, but hardly so satisfying to the small fry as filching bits of ice from the jingling cart when the iceman's back was turned.

Prepared by Ralph L. Sheridan


1 - Capt. John Phaneuf - Hudson Fire Department
2 - Annals of Sudbury, Wayland and Maynard
3 - "A Brief History of Maynard" - William H. Gutteridge
4 - Town of Maynard Assessors Book 1871
5-11 - The Maynard News

Yankee Magazine - issues of Jan. 1965 - Jan 1966.
The Boston Globe
The New England Year - Hayden Pearson

Richard Elum(?), ???, ??? for time and story of Leo Comeau.