Ice Harvesting

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1835 – 1939


The following article was written by Jean and Bud Seymour for the Sodus Bay Historical Society Newsletter:




(Most of the information for this article came from Ice Harvesting in Early America by Dewey D. Hill and Elliott R. Hughes, published by and for the New Hartford Historical Society of New Hartford, New York in February 1977. With the exception of the Courier-Gazette reference, all quoted material came from that source. The photographs are reprinted courtesy of the New York State Museum in Albany.)


The February 23 , 1898 issue of what is now the Newark Courier-Gazette printed the following announcement:

“Local Newark ice dealers have their warehouses full of good clean Sodus Bay ice.”


From 1800 to 1920, nearly every community of any size in the northeastern United States that was near fresh water harvested ice, usually during January and February, when temperatures were coldest. Because the season was short, work was intense;once the harvest was begun it rarely shut down until the entire “crop” was in the icehouse and the men worked 10-hour days and 7-day weeks. Hard work notwithstanding, the annual ice harvest was often a somewhat festive and usually well- attended community event which not only spurred the local economy but also broke the monotony of the long winters.


Ice was used far and wide. In 1805, Frederic Tudor of Boston sent a shipment of ice to Martinique to help in the fight against a Yellow Fever epidemic. This appears to have been the first time that ice was exported from the United States. Ice was not always gratefully received, however. In 1830, the first shipment of ice sent to New Orleans so alarmed the bewildered Creole population that a riot ensued during which the entire cargo was thrown overboard. The ice burned their fingers.


As people began to want more for their tables than dried and salted meats, ice became an important commodity in this country. “The importance of ice to meat packers of the West, to milk companies and to brewers as well as to market men everywhere made the ice business prominent among early industries in the United States.”  In 1830, businesses in Cincinnati were selling crushed ice by the basket. By about 1838, thanks to the introduction of ice cutters, ice was sold in square-cut blocks by weight. Over the years the demand for ice grew. Farmers used it to keep milk butter, eggs and perishable produce from spoiling; railroads used it to keep meat and milk from spoiling while being transported to market and to cool perishables served in their dining cars; hotels, restaurants and private homes used it in their iceboxes, ice cream makers and to cool beverages.  By 1850, New York City alone used 300,000 tons of  ice a year. “In 1880, the cities of the United States had a per capita consumption of ice of about two-thirds of a ton . . . (and) by 1900, ice was as essential in summer as was coal in winter.”


The photo above is Edith Farrington’s grandfather (Francis Noble) harvesting ice on his farm in Clyde, NY in 1925


In the northern states, wherever there was fresh water there was money to be made. In fact, near the cities, farmers with ponds “sometimes could sell the ice harvested for more than the value of the whole farm!”  In general, however, the cost to the typical homeowner was minimal. (Generally, 25 pounds delivered four times per week cost about $2.00 a month.)


To meet the ever-increasing demand for ice, harvesting was done on ponds, rivers, bays and even canals (more about canal ice later). Methods and tools changed over time, of course. In the late 1700s, for example, men used axes to chop ice from ponds. The ax eventually gave way to the hand ice saw, which was later augmented by horse-drawn ice-cutting tools (in about 1825). The introduction of the steam engine ushered in a further advancement (in about 1870) and then it was replaced by electricity-driven machinery in about 1912 (since it “took so long to get up steam in the mornings).”  The process described below (and in the Lighthouse Museum’s exhibit) employed both hand and horse-drawn implements and was used by fairly sizable operations.


Sometime in January, usually, when the ice had reached the desirable thickness (ideally 14-16 inches – thick enough to support a team), snow had to be cleared from the area to be harvested. If the snow was light and dry, a clearing scraper was used. This consisted of boards assembled in such a way as to provide a flat bottom and an angled back that slanted away from the bottom. It was usually about eight feet wide and was pulled by a horse;  “the operator stood on the tail board of the scraper so as to gather just enough snow so that it did not spill over the top of the plank.”  Heavier, wetter snow was removed by means of a scoop scraper which was only three feet wide and which was then followed by the clearing scraper. The snow was sometimes dumped on the edges of the ice field but since the weight of the piles occasionally broke the ice, it was safer to take the snow some distance away.


The next job was to mark the ice field. To create a base line men drove two stakes into auger holed about 200 feet apart at the edge of the field to be cut. They placed a long plank fitted with sights in line with the stakes and ran a hand plow close to its edge, cutting a groove one-half inch deep. When this line was completed, they scribed the first cross line in the same manner. These first grooves at right angles to each other served as guides for the ice marker, which had a row of teeth and a swing guide. The teeth were placed in the previously scribed groove and pulled along its entire length, deepening the groove to two inches. The swing guide was then placed in the groove, thus gauging the distance for the next groove, and the process was repeated until the entire field was marked out like a checkerboard.


Once the field was marked, it had to be plowed (or grooved) and this job was done by a horse-drawn ice plow. Each tooth of the plow was set to cut one-quarter inch deeper than the one in front of it; consequently, one trip with an eight-tooth plow would deepen a groove by two inches. Multiple trips by two plows could deepen the grooves to seven inches, sufficiently deep for l2-inch ice (the most common cut for retail trade). The cakes could then be split off with a breaking bar and, if done correctly, would break evenly, leaving no lips on the cakes.


The next step was to create floats and the process was begun as near the conveyor as possible. In the vernacular of an ice man, a float was “a  detachment of ice comprising a large number of cakes, with the cakes left together so they could be floated from the field to the channel where they could be separated.” Floats ranged in size from four to eight cakes wide by 10 to 30 cakes in length. To create a float, men used handsaws, usually five feet long and with a handle like that on an old lawnmower. Following the grooves made by the ice plow, they sawed a strip across the end of the field to be harvested; this strip was just one cake wide and was sawed on both sides. A second strip was sawed at right angles to the first and the two strips were sunk underneath the side of the channel (care having been taken to saw the strips wider at the bottom than the top) in an operation called sinking the header. With two sides of the first float thus freed, the men then sawed a third side. “A good sawyer took a long stroke using nearly the full length of . . the saw [and] he cut an inch or more at each stroke.” (Handsaws were later replaced by many different designs of power saws. One design even mounted a circular saw blade on the rear axle of an automobile in place of a wheel) To free the fourth side they used a breaking bar (a tool with a wedge-shaped blade at the end of a handle) to split open the groove.


Now two or three men standing on the float itself used their breaking bars simultaneously and barred off strips of cakes, while others standing on the solid field of ice used pike poles or float hooks (an iron point and adjacent sharp hook on the end of a pole 12 to 16 feet long) to push the strips into the narrow channel and toward the barring bridge.


The barring bridge, located fairly close to the icehouse, was where “barmen” stood and jabbed breaking bars down into the ice strips with a twisting thrust to break off storage-sized cakes. (As more floats were freed from the field and the channel became wider, the “barmen” worked on entire floats rather than cake-wide strips. Of course the channel had to be kept open at all times, but that’s another story. On many a late afternoon numbed hands would lose their grip on the bar, sending it into the icy skier to be retrieved by the ice harvester’s tool of necessity, the pike pole.


After the ice passed under the barring bridge, men poled it into a short canal that ran from the channel to the end of the conveyor. Here any floes that had not been broken up at the barring bridge were separated into individual cakes before they reached the conveyor.


At the beginning of the harvesting operation, two piers (about five feet apart) were built from the foot of the conveyor to about 30 or 40 feet from shore. The first step in opening up the channel was clearing out the ice from between the piers. These piers supported the men who used pike poles to feed the ice cakes onto the conveyor by pushing them onto the moving belt, where the crossbars gripped the cakes and moved them up the conveyor. Just before they entered the icehouse, cakes were run through an adjustable planer which planed off the top of the cake, leaving it clean and of a uniform thickness. (In smaller operations a horse-drawn grapple hauled cakes out of the canal and up an inclined plane made of planks.)


Through the 1920s, icehouses were a common feature of the landscape in the northeast. While they varied in size, depending on the size of the harvesting operation, they were alike in most other respects.


Dampness was the greatest enemy of ice preservation, so icehouses were located in areas devoid of trees, where air circulated freely. Since the heat of the earth around and beneath it also caused melting, the ice had to be “guarded by a nonconductor of heat on all sides as well as top and bottom.”  Consequently, there was usually a ten- inch layer of sand on the bottom of the icehouse and on top of that a layer of straw. Unless the icehouse was built over a cistern, the bottom also had to have a drain to carry off water. The floor, made of wood planks, was high enough above the ground to allow the air to circulate and slanted enough to drain off water. Ideally, the icehouse had double walls, between which bark, charcoal, sawdust, hay, wood shavings, straw or some other nonconducting substance was put. When the ice was brought into the icehouse, a layer of sawdust was thrown between layers of cakes for insulation – and to make the cakes easier to separate later on. Sawdust was not really ideal, as it tended  to clog drains, but it was cheaper and more accessible than the cleaner marsh grass. By the time the icehouse was full, the harvest was surrounded by insulating material, sometimes as much as three feet of it. According to Hill and Hughes, “the best icehouses often had a shrinkage of ice from 10 to 30% between cutting and delivery depending on circumstances such as insulation, humidity, moisture, and drainage.”


Small icehouses were usually wood structures and the average farm family found 10 x  10 feet to be adequate. Larger icehouses (which were constructed of wood, brick or even hollow tile) were divided into rooms of perhaps 30 x 40 feet (one in Fair Haven had rooms 40 x 50 feet) and 30 feet high, with each room holding 600 tons of ice. Houses belonging to large ice companies had capacities of 30,000 to 40,000 tons.


There were four icehouses in Sodus Point. One belonged to the Pennsylvania Railroad  and was located at the south end of Ontario Street, on the east side of the street. A second, owned by Alvin Fields, was also located at the south end of Ontario but on the west side, towards Sill’s Marina. A third was located between Sill’s and Shirtz’s Grocery Store and the fourth was at the end of Field Street.


Getting the ice from river, pond or bay to the icehouse was not without its hazards. It  was not uncommon, for example, for men to slip into the freezing water. Once pulled out, they were rushed to a shed where the warmth supplied by a pot-bellied stove, hot liquids and a change of clothes usually got their circulation going again so they were able to return to the ice field – no doubt exercising a greater degree of caution than previously!


Occasionally horses (often improperly shod) also got too close to the water or fell through the ice. For this reason, a “choke rope” was part of a horse’s standard  equipment. This was a large rope with a slip knot in one end that was hung around the horse’s neck; the rest of the rope hung over the hames of the harness. When a horse fell in, all work stopped. The driver and his assistants immediately pulled on the “choke rope”, shutting off the animal’s wind supply and thus preventing it from struggling in the icy water. They were immediately blanketed and exercised and were usually none the worse for the ordeal.


Since some of the ice harvested would be used in beverages, precautions were taken to keep the ice “sanitary.” And, since horses are less than sanitary in their habits, someone had to clean up after them. This someone was called the “shine boy.” His job was to scrape the ice “at the scene of activity” and pour formaldehyde on the spot to “kill any germs or contamination that was left on the ice.” He pulled a small wooden sleigh with a waterproof lining and collected what the horses had left; since droppings that were not picked up immediately left a noticeably shiny spot on the ice, this was called a “shine sleigh.”


Another of the less-inviting jobs had to do with keeping the channel open. If temperatures were low enough to create ideal conditions for harvesting, they were also low enough to freeze any open water. Consequently, workers were hired (and paid more than the going rate) to keep the channel open at night – by keeping the ice floats constantly moving, rowing a boat back and forth in the channel or pulling an ice-breaking raft back and forth, This was bone-chilling work and sometimes (when the temperature plunged as low as 20 or 30 degrees below zero) wasted effort, as those whose job it was could see and hear fresh ice forming behind them!


lce was a crop and like any other crop, subject to the whims of weather. A thaw or rain storm could ruin an ice crop. If the weather wasn’t cold enough for long enough, ice did not get thick enough to harvest. In fact, many icemen considered they’d had a stood “run” if they had two good harvests in a row.