Ice being harvested on the Penobscot River, in this undated early 20th century photograph. Credit: Courtesy of Brewer Historical Society

On these frigid winter days, ice is everywhere — on roads and driveways, frozen in gutters and forming on rivers and lakes. One hundred years ago, however, what’s today more of a nuisance — or a reason to go fishing — was a major source of income for the Bangor region, when companies like Getchell Brothers harvested ice from local waterways.

Though harvesting natural ice was replaced by mechanized ice production in the 1940s, ice was a main export for the Bangor region for nearly a century. Before electrical refrigeration was in every house in the country, harvesters filled massive, heavily insulated ice houses with huge hunks of frozen water from the Penobscot River and Kenduskeag Stream to be delivered to homes and businesses across the country throughout the year.

Brewer in particular was the epicenter of the eastern Maine ice industry. In the late 19th century, ice houses lined the riverbank from Brewer to Orrington, and harvesters brought their horses and gear down to the river to cut huge blocks of ice.

Horses would first pull “scalpers” to remove the snow from the ice, according to the Brewer Historical Society. Then the horses would pull cutters to score sections of the ice, from which men would cut out big blocks using saws and picks. Ice-free channels would be cut to allow those blocks to float down and be placed onto elevator-like platforms, which were pulled up by heavy chains into the icehouses, where the ice would be stored until it was ready to be shipped and used.

Lumber, shingles and ice are loaded onto a ship in the Penobscot River, in this undated early 20th century photo. Credit: Courtest of Brewer Historical Society

Throughout the year, ships fitted with refrigeration holds would arrive on the river to take blocks of ice to points all over the country, and even to the Caribbean and Central and South America. From there, they’d be delivered to homes in southern cities. With its clean, clear rivers and lakes, Maine’s ice was reputed to hold an attractive “blue” hue — whether that was actually true, or simply a clever marketing scheme, no one will ever know.

Prior to the 1860s, ice was considered a luxury item, but when fresh dairy and produce became more widely available in the years after the Civil War, home refrigeration became far more commonplace. Iceboxes were found in most middle-class homes, and Maine’s abundance of ice all winter long and easy accessibility to shipping routes meant that for nearly a century, ice was a big industry for the state.

In Maine, Getchell Brothers delivered ice all over town, though summertime was, of course, the high season. In a story published in the Bangor Daily News in June of 1988, a longtime employee of Getchell, Hugh McKenzie, recalled delivering ice to local residents via horse-drawn carriage, before finally switching to a Model T truck in the 1930s.

A Getchell Brothers ice wagon, seen here in this undated early 20th century photograph. Credit: Courtesy of Brewer Historical Society

In the 1940s, the company began to switch to mechanized ice production, and the days of ice harvesting were over — though Getchell Brothers existed as a local, family-owned ice manufacturer for another nearly 80 years, until it was sold last year to national ice and water company Arctic Glacier.

Matthew Cole of Ellsworth lifts a block of ice from the pond during the annual ice harvest at the Curran Homestead Village at Fields Pond in Orrington in this 2019 file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Today, ice harvesting is only done for fun, as a historical re-enactment. Most years the Curran Homestead in Orrington hosts an ice harvesting day on nearby Fields Pond, using old hand tools, while in the Lincoln County town of South Bristol, the historic Thompson Ice House also offers an annual ice harvesting day.

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.