Frozen gold

During a recent reorganization effort of my squirrel files, those slightly more organized companions to my squirrel bins, I came across newspaper clippings entitled “Frozen Gold.” The title probably caught my eye because of all the things I’ve found in My Old House, gold is not one of them (not even one measly coin).

However, this frozen gold referred to ice blocks, those huge chunks necessary for the true “ice boxes” of early refrigeration days. Ice harvesting was once big industry on the Kennebec River in Maine, as I discovered by reading old newspaper clippings liberated from my files. The Augusta Ice Company was still in business as late as January 1934, when it cut (in one week) 45,000–50,000 cakes, or about 7,000 tons of ice from the Kennebec River “above the dam” (Augusta). The ice blocks were covered in sawdust and stored in ice houses.

Noting the size of the ice blocks, I can really appreciate the ice-block-free refrigeration in My Old House!

Commercial ice harvesting required laying out a “field” of 120 blocks of ice from the main field. Barmen cut the ice into strips, pickmen floated the blocks into an open canal with long-handled picks to an elevator. The entire operation required many men, many horses, and employed a variety of workers including blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, and managers of the boarding houses owned and maintained by the ice companies.

Ice harvesting was not limited to commercial operations, however. My paternal grandfather, Rex Church (1883–1956) owned the property abutting My Old House, over one hundred acres which included ponds, brooks, and springs. Out of my squirrel bins came photos taken about 1922 of my grandfather, my uncle, and hired help (carefully watched by my aunt, the then-toddler Pauline) cutting ice blocks from a pond they dammed in early fall for the purpose of obtaining enough ice blocks to store against refrigeration needs in warmer weather. Noting the size of the ice blocks, I can really appreciate the ice-block-free refrigeration in My Old House!

My grandfather’s ice saw and tongs shown in the photos lived in my garage (also known as a very large squirrel bin) until our last downsizing effort. The sleds, horse, people, and even the pond have gone the way of all good things, and have taken their places in the stories of my family’s history. I may not have gold bars, but we do get lots of that “frozen gold!”

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

8 thoughts on “Frozen gold

  1. There are photos of some of those great big ice houses burning, back in the day. The wooden buildings are all charred, or gone, smoke rising, but those ice blocks remain. Amazing. ( Sent from Phippsburg, Maine, where the former Parker’s Bay Ice Company operated just outside our house)

  2. Well packed ice was shipped to Savannah, where it was still usable in the summer months. Amazing! I have no idea how much delivered ice costed in the mid 1800s, but it must have been quite a luxury item.

  3. I remember reading about ice being delivered as far south as the Caribbean, and who knows where after that? Refrigerated ships and trains shipped to famous restaurants, and I’m sure there are experts in the field who know a lot more than I’ve been able to remember here. But it was big business, for several decades.

  4. My great grandfather, born in Mattapoisett, MA in 1840, gave up whaling during the Civil War, and bought a small coasting schooner. With that he delivered ice to Cuba and other southern ports. I’ve often wondered how many years he did that and what goods he brought back with him.

  5. I was taking a historic tour in Maryland a while back, and we were looking at a large cement hole beside a restaurant. The tour director said that it was for ice. I asked where the ice came, from and she said that it was from the Kennebec River. They are still cutting ice in Maine in a pond near Bristol, I think.

    1. Hi Jane! Yes, the Thompson Ice House Harvesting Museum in South Bristol, Maine has a popular ice cutting event (using original tools) each winter. They use the ice cut then to make ice cream for another event in July.

    2. The ice came into Washington, D.C. in a ship, was transferred to a barge on the C&O canal and transported west as far as Cumberland, MD. Probably distributed along the way and beyond. The cargo going back was coal.

  6. Ice houses and ice harvesting are fascinating . As a 10 year old vactioning on Washington Island in Wisconsin (1938/39) I saw vast ice storage; I believe it was, still then, the primary source of refrigeration on the island.

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