Here’s how ice was harvested

1 year ago

Ice harvesting on the stream, brooks, lakes, ponds and rivers of Maine in the days before modern day refrigeration techniques was the norm.  People used the large blocks of ice to keep food cold.  In addition, before the invention of refrigerated trailers and cargo containers, ice was also used to transport frozen food.

In the economic depression that followed the Civil War, ships carrying cargo to foreign lands and other cities here in the United States were struggling to find enough cargo to fill their ships.  Large blocks of ice were used as ballast on the ships and were covered with sawdust to slow down the melting process.  The ships’ captains soon learned ice was a precious commodity for warmer climates and that these locations were willing to pay for the ice.

In the early days before homes had refrigerators, people had “iceboxes.”  Food was kept cold by placing 30-pound blocks of ice in the icebox.  Locally, a man by the name of Chet Payne delivered ice door to door for a penny a pound.

The ice company’s warehouse was along the stream on the Chapman Road.  The ice was cut into large blocks approximately 18 by 24 by 20 inches, and weighing 325 to 350 pounds apiece.  The blocks were then transported by conveyer belt to the ice house.    The ice was used as refrigeration for shipments of potatoes and frozen food on the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad.

Farmers and local laborers found ice harvesting to be a good source of extra income during the winter months.  Men were paid $5 a day to shovel snow from the banks.  This also allowed easier access to get the ice from the stream onto the conveyer belt by using the gaff.

On very cold nights, 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch of ice would form.  Snow cover actually prevented ice from forming.  Therefore, the Ice Company would plow a two-mile section of the stream in order to harvest the ice.  This would allow the crews to harvest about 9,000 tons of ice per season; 5,500 of those tons went to the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad to transport frozen foods.  The ice company preferred to use a Model T Ford with a light plow.  The Model T was a light vehicle and ice only 4 inches thick would hold it.  The company did have instances where heavier vehicles were used and the trucks did break through the ice.

Harvesting was not all done by hand, however.  An 18-horsepower Wisconsin air-conditioned motorized saw was mounted on a sled.  The sled was operated by two men who walked the saw backwards cutting the cakes of ice in consistent sizes.  The saw could cut as fast as the men could walk.  The saw did not cut all the way through the ice, but typically would cut through 16 of the 18 inches in depth.  The men would use a breaker bar to break through the remaining 2 inches.  An ice saw was also used.  The ice would then float down the stream with the current and sometimes guided by the men with their ice picks.

The endless chain conveyer belt was designed and built by Joe Gagnon.  The conveyer belt would carry 5 or 6 blocks of ice at a time up the incline from the stream to waiting trucks.   Each truck could hold 24 “cakes” of ice.  The trucks then transported the ice to empty railroad boxcars at Chapman Siding.

Loading the boxcars would call for a crew of four men, two inside the boxcar and two out.  Each boxcar would hold three tiers of ice for shipment to Bangor & Aroostook Railroad’s storage facility in Caribou.  There was also a storage facility in Washburn.  The storage facility was located next to the steam electrical plant in Caribou, which still stands today.  The crews could load and fill 20 boxcars in one day.

It would take a crew of 18 to 20 men to unload the boxcars and place the ice in the storage facility.  The ice cakes were piled 10 high.  Once the building was full, sawdust would be placed around the sides and on top of the ice, but not between tiers.  Joe Gagnon also started the practice of placing paper between the top layer of the ice and the first layer of sawdust.  

As the weather got warmer and ice was needed in the boxcars to transport frozen food to market, the ice would be moved back to the boxcars and loaded in the top of each boxcar.

Once the weather did begin getting warmer, the men would need to begin reclaiming ice from the storage facility and get all of the sawdust off of it in order to use it to refrigerate the boxcars.  Sawdust acted as an insulator and kept the ice from melting.  During the transition from winter to spring, the ice would begin melting and often the cakes stuck together.  So, some “reclaiming” was required to remove sawdust and break apart the cakes.

Once loaded in the boxcar on top of the frozen food, the ice would be liberally sprinkled with rock salt.  The rock salt would help the ice to melt faster.  The iced water would then cool the food and draw the heat from the boxcars faster.

Some ice harvesting is still done today.  The Amish and at least one sporting camp still use this time-tested method.  

Kimberly R. Smith is the secretary/treasurer of the Presque Isle Historical Society.