As a transplant “from away,” there are aspects of life in Maine that were completely foreign to me until I moved here: entering a lottery to hunt a moose, buying special tires for the snow, heading “upta camp” (which, I learned, is not the same as pitching a tent in the woods) and eating bright red hot dogs without fear of carcinogenic dyes. Some Maine traditions have been lost to the annals of time, but when I hear about them, they almost seem like fairy tales. Prime example: ice harvesting.
During the 1800s, ice harvesting was one of Maine’s largest industries. The international ice trade was pioneered by a Bostonian named Frederic Tudor, who starting around 1805, spent five decades developing specialized ice-harvesting tools and cultivating a demand for chilled food and drinks. He even cleverly leveraged ice’s ability to serve as ballast for shipping boats.
The pure, crystal-blue product from Maine’s cold winters and deep lakes and rivers set the standard for ice quality. Moreover, the proximity of these ice fields to sea lanes kept shipping costs low. At its peak between about 1870 and 1890, some 25,000 men converged on the Kennebec River each winter to cut and store nearly 1.5 million tons of ice, which shipped as far as South America, India and China. In these decades, Maine’s ice returned a wealth greater than that of California’s annual gold production.