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Harvesting a cold crop from local lakes

Recalling the days of cutting ice for Valley kitchens

February 04, 2010
A view of some of the labor involved in the old-time occupation of ice harvesting, which faded from our landscape when refrigerators permanently replaced ice-boxes in our kitchens, will be presented at the Remick Country Doctor Museum & Farm in Tamworth on Saturday, Feb. 13 — see page B2 for all the details on this popular annual event.

Working with an ice saw, blocks of ice will be manually cut out of the museum's pond. After cutting, the blocks will be put on skids, and 4-H cattle and oxen will tow them to the farm's ice-house for storage. Attendees will be able to form an impression of what was once not only a domestic occupation for individual families but also an industry that gave employment to many people.

Maurice "Jim" Kimball of South Conway remembered performing the arduous task of harvesting ice in a small-scale operation, which he ran with only one helper during the Great Depression. For three years, to keep bread on the table in wintertime, he cut ice on ponds near the North Haverhill farm where he lived.

When interviewed by The Mountain Ear some years ago, he recalled that, "I was trying to make a job for myself, like everybody else was then. In those days, nobody had any money. Cutting ice was hard, cold work, but it was good work for the winter, and summers I did other things."

Then newly married, he lacked the wherewithal to buy an ice-cutting machine. So he made his own out of an old sled on which he mounted a used automobile motor (purchased for 50 cents from a friend) and a 35-inch board saw. With this improvised contraption, he could produce ice cakes approximately 18 inches square, a size readily handled with ice tongs. Local farmers came with their trucks or horse-drawn wagons to haul away the ice, paying Kimball 3 cents per cake, cut and loaded. On his best day ever, Kimball cut 1000 cakes.

"They paid me $1.50 for 50 cakes—about what you'd pay today for a bag of ice cubes," he noted wryly.

One customer, who owed him $35, bartered a heifer instead of money. Kimball kept one quarter of the heifer and sold the rest.

A single farmer might purchase and store 800 to 1000 cakes per winter, Kimball said. Some of his customers included the county farm, which stored between 2,000 and 3,000 cakes, and a big North Haverhill milk company, which stored even more in its enormous ice house. Packed tightly into ice houses, with snow tamped down hard between the cracks and a foot of sawdust around and on top of the ice pile, the ice blocks lasted into summer.

BESIDES INDIVIDUALS LIKE Kimball who cut ice on their own for family use or for income, there were also ice-harvesting companies. Two that operated locally included one on Pequawket Pond, run by Loren Shackford of Conway, the other on Silver Lake, operated by his brother, Jesse, of Madison. The brothers first started harvesting ice early in the 1900s and continued until about 1950—longer than some similar operations.

Jesse's son, Jesse, Jr., known as "Bud," was involved in his father's ice harvesting from childhood until age 18, when he joined the Armed Forces to serve on occupation duty in Japan. As a youngster when he was not in school, he regularly helped out on winter weekends.

"We were on the ice all the time when we were kids," he told The Mountain Ear. "They liked kids, and no one ever drove us off."

His Uncle Loren's need for help had priority as he had the bigger business, supplying local hotels, stores, restaurants and families, so Bud and his friends lent a hand willingly.

"We filled his ice house first, then Dad's," he said. "But he and Dad always helped each other out, and no money ever changed hands between them."

Needless to say, Bud and his pals were never paid either. They worked the ice for the fun of it and because it was a natural extension of family feeling. But — and Bud's face lit up at the memory — after work, their reward took edible form.

"Two or three of my brothers, Dad and I, we'd go up to Aunt Virgie's and eat! She was a fine cook."

Ice harvested by his dad's operation filled his family's own ice house, helped fill Loren's, and supplied the Silver Lake boarding house, the Silver Lake Hotel, two girls' camps, and at least three individual families.

While Loren cut cakes 22 by 44 inches in size, Jesse's cakes measured 22 inches square. The sawdust, whose thick layers made the cut ice last until summer, was a commodity in ample supply when Conway's wood mills were still in operation.

"The mills were glad to get rid of it," Shackford said. "You'd have to pay for it today."

When they first started harvesting, the brothers used horses pulling an ice plow to groove the ice, then cut it manually with saws and break bars, but they converted to sawing machines once they became available.

"Those machines changed everything," Shackford noted. "They made everything easier and faster."

FROM THE ICE-HARVESTING memories recounted by Jim Kimball and Bud Shackford, it is apparent that not only technologies but human habits vary with the times. Their memories harked back to a time when communities were smaller, everybody knew everybody else, and family life had an importance it often lacks today.

At about the same time that refrigerators came in and ice harvesting went out, a small town way of life also began to vanish, in which neighbors, co-workers and customers were almost like family, too. Even business dealings then took place on a more personal level than they do now. Which may explain why, even though the business of ice harvesting was, as Kimball put it, "cold, hard work," it seems to have been remembered with warmth by some of those who practiced it. s

Editor's note: This article was originally published by The Mountain Ear in 1998 and was reviewed recently by its author, Gabrielle Griswold, for any updating it required. Needless to say, very little has changed in the ages-old practice of ice cutting and we are happy to re-run this piece which was originally written, after all, by one of The Ear's most beloved writers.

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