Little remains from when ice was state’s largest cash crop

Maine's Ice Age
Maine's Ice Age
Posted Feb. 14, 2011, at 6:16 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 15, 2011, at 5:21 a.m.

It’s no small wonder that the wild and woolly mid-to late 1800s era of logging that earned Bangor the title “Lumber Capital of the World” is well-chronicled in Maine’s colorful history. Yet, relatively scant mention is made of the late 1800s-early 1900s era that produced what was once the state’s largest cash crop — ice. Though it can be said that, overall, logging was the most dangerous of the two occupations, there’s no denying that harvesting ice was every bit as arduous.

Typically, the ice harvest began with the arrival of January and lasted through February. Day in and day out, large crews of men working with teams of horses cut and stored cakes of crystal-clear ice in cavernous houses built along the shores of storied rivers such as the Kennebec, Androscoggin and Penobscot. As can be imagined, the process required men with strength, stamina, agility and willingness to work in weather that, at times, would intimidate an Eskimo. Accordingly, it was said that the only time work was called off was when the weather got too cold for the horses.

For the most part, the ice crop was harvested by local farmers, fishermen and others who appreciated the opportunity to “make a little extra” in their off seasons. Moreover, river communities benefited from vagrant workers who hung their hats in boardinghouses and farms with spare rooms.

Realizing that ice was a profitable and renewable resource free for the taking, Bangor-area businessmen wasted no time in establishing ice companies along the Penobscot River. Thus, icehouses that dwarfed the biggest dairy barns shared the Bangor and Brewer shores with sawmills. Imagine the lumber, shingles, carpenters, roofers, horses and blacksmiths required to build such massive structures, many of which were hundreds of feet long. In keeping with the adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” sawdust from the mills was used to insulate the houses and ice stored therein. But allowing for Yankee opportunism and parsimony, it’s doubtful that the need for sawdust was filled without a fee.

Ice also was harvested from area lakes, ponds and streams. Accordingly, Getchell Bros. ice company of Brewer, established in 1888, harvested ice near Bull’s Eye Bridge on Kenduskeag Stream, a tributary of the Penobscot River.

Naturally, the growth of the ice business increased the competition between companies. In that regard, hourly pay, adequate supplies and equipment, safety considerations and payment for horses, sleds and the like were factors in the hiring of ice men. Equally competitive was the first-come-first-served securing and marking of ice “fields” to be harvested.

All things considered, the ice harvest must have been something to see. Picture men bundled in heavy wool clothing and thick-knit stockings topping caulked leather boots, and horses steaming and blanketed against the cold. Undaunted by the constant cracking and booming of the ice, caused by the ever-changing tides, they worked on fields either silvered by cold sunlight or fogged by snow, rain or sleet storms. To say the ice men were appreciative of women who kept coffee brewing and soups simmering over shoreline fires would be an understatement.

Early on, the marked grids of ice were cut by men using long saws with handles attached at right angles to the blade. Holes drilled into the ice provided access for the saws. It wasn’t long, however, before Yankee ingenuity created a faster and easier way, which was to score the ice with a horse-drawn drag including sharp blades arranged in single file. When the ice was scored to within a few inches of its depth, usually 14-16 inches, long-handled, two-pronged iron “busting bars” were inserted into the cuts and, with a quick coordinated pry, broke the scored sections free. Basically the same method used in cutting glass. Later, the ice was scored with motor-driven circular saws.

Long poles shoed with metal picks and hooks were used to guide the floating slabs into a channel leading to the icehouse’s chain-drive, steam-operated escalator. As the ice was loaded onto the escalator it was mechanically trimmed and planed into nearly perfect squares. Once transported into the house, the cakes were poled along runways and stored in bays. Suffice it to say that men working in the icehouse had to be alert and nimble to avoid being struck and injured by the heavy, and sometimes errant, cakes skimming along at high speed. Snow and chipped ice that collected in the runways were disposed of by waste runs that extended through openings in the sides of icehouses. Thus, the houses were banked with glistening piles resembling pyramids.

Owing to the efficiency of sawdust insulation, the loss of ice to melting was surprisingly low, the culprit being fog more so than sun. Still, the melting resulted in moisture and wetness that caused icehouses to deteriorate. Therefore, full-time crews of carpenters and roofers were essential to maintaining the buildings. Blacksmiths also were kept busy at repairing tools, fitting horses with cleated shoes and mending harnesses and escalator chains. Moreover, boys were hired to pick up after the horses, and at night men with long-handled chisels kept the channels from freezing.

All told, harvesting ice was a dramatic and diverse business. After each snowstorm the ice fields had to be plowed and scraped clean. Actually the ice was scraped often to remove crust caused by thawing and freezing, residues of snow, sleet and rain squalls, and slush resulting from water that surfaced through cracks in the ice. Though incidents of men falling into the water were uncommon, long, stout ropes were kept handy for such emergencies. If a horse broke through it was rescued by means of a tripod hoist made of wood poles rigged with pulleys and ropes. The horse was then blanketed and walked while being fed warm liquids to ward off hypothermia.

Come springtime and ice-out, schooners and square riggers arrived at docks fronting icehouses. Then began the painstaking process of transferring the stored ice to the ships’ holds, where it was again insulated with sawdust or hay. In the days and weeks that followed, the crystalline cakes, still intact, arrived at ports ranging from this country’s southern states to continents as distant as Europe, Africa and beyond.

By the 1890s, Maine rivers were producing, in aggregate, ice crops of 3 million tons. Yet, by the turn of the century, the demand for river ice was declining owing to the advent of ice-making machines. On the Penobscot, for instance, the only ice company remaining in 1920 was Getchell Brothers, which is still in business today.

So it was that Maine’s ice age came to an end. Hardly a trace can be seen now of the old icehouses, and people who can recall harvesting ice are few and far between. All that remains of that interesting but seldom mentioned era are the rivers that produced what was once Maine’s largest cash crop.

Author’s note: The reference material for this feature was provided by the Bangor Public Library and Getchell Brothers Inc. of Brewer.

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