The Ice Age
Cutting and storing ice for refrigeration, once a lucrative Maine industry, lives on at a few remote sporting camps.
By Paul J. Fournier
Image from Collections of Maine Historical Society
Across an expanse of frozen lake surface, several burly, bright-garbed men are at work cutting ice with handsaws and chisels. In the background, the wild, forested lakeshore crowds up to a small cluster of log cabins with snow-covered roofs and smoke plumes curling from chimneys. This picture-perfect scene from Currier & Ives, once common throughout the frozen north, can still be found in a few isolated places far removed from the power grid. Places like Bradford Camps on Munsungan Lake, Libby Camps on Millinocket Lake, and Cobb’s Pierce Pond Camps, all located in remote wilderness areas of northern Maine, still cut ice from pure waters and store it under hay or sawdust to be dug out again in the warm months, when it is used to preserve food, chill a drink, or retain the freshness of a trout caught for tomorrow’s breakfast.
Bradford Camps, which has been cutting and storing ice for 120 years, puts up an average of twelve tons of ice every January, and it lasts all year long. “We try for the earlier season, because we have better ice then, and it’s not too thick,” says owner Igor Sikorsky III. “A nine-to-twelve-inch layer of clear ice is our ideal. We cut blocks about twelve inches square, which gives us fifty- to eighty-pound blocks, depending on depth.”
Sikorsky’s team of experienced guys have been working together for years. They’ve practically turned the once-a-year chore into a game. “With two cutters, two yankers, two loaders, two sledders, a gantry person, and two people in the icehouse, we can get the work done in about four hours — or beer equivalent, which is about six.”
The men, who shovel snow off a roughly fifty-by-fifty-foot area of frozen lake, call themselves the FSS, or Free Shoveling Society. Their motto is: “We take pride in our cubism.” They have even developed their own language: The “chuck” is the area of ice needed to fill the icehouse. A “frank” is an ice block that shatters, making it undesirable for storage. “Bark” is the process of cutting a bar of ice into cakes. The “ice house troll” is the guy who emerges from the icehouse, bent over and squinting in the daylight, after spending four hours stooped over and picking up sixty pound blocks of ice. The “dividend” is the beer hidden in an ice block, to be discovered by some lucky soul in spring. It is, Sikorsky says, “the most perfectly chilled beer in the world.”
Cobb’s Pierce Pond Camps has been putting up ice for more than a half-century. Every February, Gary Cobb, his son, Andy, and a crew of ten employees and volunteers spend a busy work-crammed weekend cutting the ice blocks out of the nearly two-foot-thick ice on Pierce Pond. While the hardy souls are experiencing toe-freezing and nose-biting cold, next summer’s camp guests will be able to enjoy iced drinks, pack their lunch coolers, and the winter ice will help to augment the camp kitchen’s gas-powered walk-in refrigerator.
Each sporting camp has developed its own system of cutting, hauling, and storing ice. Cobb bought an antique ice-cutting machine years ago from the Titcomb family of Abbott. The ungainly looking contraption is mounted on rugged sled runners and uses a 1929 Model A Ford engine, geared to turn a large circular saw, similar to the one still in use by the Thompson Ice House Museum in South Bristol. It takes most of the ten-man crew to haul and push the saw rig over the ice to mark the cutting field, carving strips several inches deep and fourteen inches wide. Then comes the hard work: Using antique handsaws, the guys cut along the strips to release the ice’s grip. The push-pull, up-and-down labor soon exhausts even the hardiest. Finally, the strips are broken into precise, fourteen-inch square blocks with a “busting bar,” an iron chisel with a wide, toothed blade.
Cobb has devised a galamander, a tall wooden tripod with a rope hoist and ice tongs, to lift each 180- to 220-pound block and load it aboard a sledge so it can be brought to the log-built icehouse, where it is carefully packed with snow and sawdust to preserve its frozen state into the sweltering summer. The icehouse holds ten tons of ice. “It’s beautiful,” Cobb says of the ice that comes from the crystal clear lake. “It’s a soft blue and so clear you can almost see through it.”
Libby Camps makes an excursion of the ice-cutting ritual. Every Martin Luther King Day weekend, as many as twenty friends show up — some stay the whole week to snowmobile, ice-fish, and simply enjoy winter camp life. Matt Libby says the crew uses “an old 80 cc Husqvarna saw with an Alaska saw mill attachment, a rope, a guide for marking the ice, ice chisel, ice tongs, snowmobile, and snow sled. We provide the grub and the Ibuprofen.” The ice is stored in a cedar log house and insulated with sawdust.
For a generation that’s grown up with frozen dinners, life without refrigeration might seem intolerable. Yet this modern-day convenience has been available for only a relatively few decades. For much of humankind’s history, perishables had to be consumed almost immediately or preserved with crude drying and salting — often poor substitutes for wholesome freshness. Spices came into use not merely for piquing the taste buds, often they were employed to conceal the taste of advanced ripening in foods.
But while the tropics sizzled, residents of the northern latitudes had an abundance of a natural preservative — winter ice — and Yankee ingenuity wasn’t long in discovering its potential. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of tons of ice were harvested in northeastern United States each year and shipped to all parts of the globe or hauled by rail to the U.S. interior.
Ice speculation ran rampant: huge fortunes were gambled, made, and lost on the whims of nature and her cold north winds. The industry employed thousands of able-bodied men — primarily farmers and hired hands from the numerous small farms dotting the river valleys, drawn by the lure of fifteen-cent-an-hour wages and the hearty food and warm beds of riverside boarding houses.
The center of the booming ice harvesting industry was the tidewater area of the Kennebec River. During the 1890s, the average annual Kennebec ice harvest exceeded three million tons, worth more than $36 million. On bright, brittle winter days, swarms of men and horses blackened the river’s surface as they scraped away the snow, grooved the ice with horse-drawn markers into huge checkerboards, sawed off long strips of the checkered surface, and broke off the individual cakes with heavy iron chisels. Using long poles tipped with steel picks and hooks, they steered the ice cakes into canals cut through the ice to steam-powered chain-link conveyers. These lifted the heavy cakes into huge icehouses — many larger than football fields — which lined the riverbank. These houses had double walls stuffed with sawdust for insulation. When the houses were full (and in peak years, the cakes overflowed the houses and the surplus piled into huge stacks on the riverbank), they were covered with insulating sawdust or hay to await the arrival of spring.
Spring meant ice-out; the first ships began making their way past Fort Popham at the river’s mouth, and beating up the Kennebec past Bath, through Merrymeeting Bay, and almost to Augusta nearly fifty miles inland. The ships were swiftly loaded at the wharves and caught the earliest favorable tide back downriver to faraway ports.
But soon, the genius of man began developing the modern miracles called electricity and refrigeration and internal combustion. The ice industry waned and died almost coincidentally with the rise of industrial development and its consequent water pollution, which was turning the ice rivers of the industrial north into open sewers. The ice became unsafe for human use. The wooden schooners rotted (a process accelerated by the fresh water from melting ice in their holds) and sank at their moorings. The huge, neglected icehouses began to leak and tilt and collapse, their roofs no longer able to hold the crushing burdens of winter snows. The ice harvesters and their horses turned their backs on the rivers and entered the forests to cut the pulpwood required to feed the paper mills. And the tools used in the ice industry were re-forged by thrifty Down East farmers into new implements for woods work, or they merely rusted away in old barns or farm dumps. A few have been preserved in museums — and at a few Maine wilderness camps where they still serve their purpose.
Paul Fournier recounts his experiences as a bush pilot, sporting camp owner, Maine Guide, and Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spokesman in Tales From Misery Ridge (Islandport Press).