When Ice Cutting Was Winter Work

PHOTO:  This is an old photo of the ice house that stood in St. Martins until 2008.  It was used as an ice house from 1850-1935.

If this was the early 20th century it would be that time of the year when ice harvesting on the lakes, ponds and rivers would be occurring.  In the “good old days” before refrigeration, people had to rely on teams of heavy farm horses and a crew of men to cut and deliver ice to their homes and to local businesses.

In rural areas like Franklin,  local farmers were usually part of the crews that would cut ice from the Root River and on ponds located throughout the area.  Residents in St. Martins would cut most of their ice on a lake now known as Monastery Lake near Rawson Ave. and Woelfel Rd.

Cutting ice usually started in December and continued through January and February, depending on the weather conditions.  The ideal time for cutting ice was when the temperature read 32 degrees because then it was easier on the crew, horses and equipment.

A typical crew consisted of up to 3 sawyers, one chisel man, one tong man and a loader.  However, before any of these men could begin their work, the ice had to be checked to see if it was thick enough for harvesting.  The preferred thickness was usually 12-14 inches.

Using a long handled auger  the crew would drill a small hole into the ice to check for the preferred thickness.  Because 89% of ice is below the water surface, the ice may seem thin and dangerous when actually it is not.

When the ice was determined to be of a good thickness then a team of horses with a snow scraper attached would clean the surface of the ice of any excess snow.  Horses  and men on the crews would wear special attachments on their shoes to make it easier for them to maneuver on the slippery ice.

Cleaning the icy surface off of snow allowed the scorer to better inscribe the ice with a one-half inch deep cut that ran about 150-200 feet in length  along the surface.  This cut would be used as a guide for the left side of the saw to rest in while the right side of the saw made straight parallel cuts into the ice.  A scorer would work his way across the lake and then go crossways, creating a checkerboard pattern.

The next step would be the use of an ice plow pulled by horses to make deeper cuts into the ice.  One of the crew would lead the horse to make sure the saw cut straight.  It would take many days to get all of the cuts made before it was time to gather the ice.

When it was time to separate the blocks of ice, a long two-handled saw or chisel was used to break the ice loose.  An ice hook attached to wooden poles 8-10 inches long would grab into a block of ice to pull or push it to shore where the ice wagon would be loaded.

After the wagon was full, the ice would be taken to ice houses that farmers or merchants had built.  Ice houses in Franklin were built with cement blocks.  As the ice houses were filled, sawdust was put between the blocks of ice so that they would not fuse together.  One ice house in St. Martins that was razed in 2008 had been in operation from 1850-1935.

Each wagon load could hold one ton of ice.  Local farmers usually needed 8-10 wagon loads per year and merchants, like saloon keepers, used approximately 100 loads each year.

Ice harvesting could be a very dangerous job.  Occasionally the tong man would fall into the water instead of the block of ice coming out.  Stories have been passed on through the years about teams of horses and wagons breaking through the ice and never being recovered.  Not only was ice harvesting very risky, but exposure to the cold and frostbite by the crew was an occupational hazard.

From the 1870’s to the late 1930’s ice cutting was a job that had to be done.  As time passed there was a concern over contaminated water and then the invention of refrigerators and automatic ice makers put an end to the harvesting of ice from local water surfaces.

People today sometimes find it hard to realize what hard work it was to harvest ice just to keep food stored properly or to enjoy cold beverages.  It is hard for them to imagine what trouble their ancestors had to go through just to obtain what we can now just get in our refrigerators or at the store.

Judeen Scherrer
“Historically Speaking” column