Reflections in Nature: Harvesting ice used to be quite a chore to do

PHOTO PROVIDED Shown is a sign warning skaters that no skating is allowed on the pond until the ice house is full.

Our ancestors had many tasks to do during the winter months, and one was filling the ice house. I have an old sign that reads, “NOTICE SKATING IS FORBIDDEN ON THIS POND UNTIL THE ICE HOUSE IS FILLED. M. SPALDING AND COMPANY.”

Before the invention of refrigeration, signs, such as this, were a common sight. Ice skating was forbidden until the ice house was filled due to the danger of falling through the thin ice in the area where ice was being harvested.

When harvesting ice first began an ice saw was used by hand to cut big blocks of ice from frozen lakes and ponds. Later, horses were used to pull cutting plows to cut blocks of ice. These blocks of ice were floated to the shore and then pulled up a ramp into an ice house, which was usually built on the shore of a lake or pond.

The walls of the ice house were filled with sawdust, which acted as insulation to keep the summer’s heat away from the ice.

During the winter months, a family living in a rural area could have their own ice house or share one with several neighbors. Ice houses were often 300 feet long and five stories high. In these commercial operations, scrapers were used to brush the snow and dirt off the ice. Eventually a machine known as a marker was used to make outlines on the ice to mark the blocks that were to be cut.

This marker would go up and down the pond, cutting a series of straight grooves approximately three feet apart. Then the marker was drawn crosswise on the pond, marking parallel groves at the same distance apart.

This would mark out squares of ice. Next a plow, which had a steel bar fitted with a set of sharp knives, followed behind the marker to cut the grooves even deeper. This made it easier to pry the cakes of ice loose with an ice spud. The blocks of ice were then floated to shore through channels made in the ice. Eventually, power saws were used in place of the plow.

The cakes of ice were placed in the ice house and packed with sawdust.

At one time, ice was big business. In 1799, ice was first transported from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina. In the early 1800s, there was quite a trade in natural ice, with ice from New England shipped as far as the West Indies.

Jacob Perkins invented the ice machine in 1834. The first artificial ice plant was set up in 1868 in New Orleans. In the same year, the first refrigerated railroad cars were built, and by 1930, 165,000 refrigerator cars were in use on American railroads.

After being discharged from the Sea Bees in 1961, I was hired by a small dairy to deliver milk door to door. I drove an unrefrigerated 1949 Ford truck. This meant that every morning after loading the milk onto the truck, I went to the company’s ice house, where I cut large blocks of ice to put through the ice crusher. I put the crushed ice in burlap bags to lay on top of the milk. On hot summer days, the ice melted by afternoon before returning to the dairy.

Later, I was fortunate to be hired by Pensupreme Dairy, a much larger dairy with refrigerated trucks. This made the job much easier, especially during the summer months. Also, these insulated trucks kept the milk from freezing during the winter months.

As a young boy I remember the iceman bringing ice to our house. My mother would put a sign in the window, showing the iceman how much ice was needed. After using an ice pick to chip off the amount needed for our ice box, the iceman put a leather thong on his shoulder. With ice tongs, he picked up the chunk of ice and placed it on his shoulder to carry inside our home to the icebox.

All five of us kids would gather at the back of the truck, hoping to get a piece of ice. Our iceman would make sure we all had ice even if he had to chip more ice off a big block. Our iceman was even more popular than the ice cream man since his ice was free.

Ice begins to form at 32 degrees Fahrenheit in pure water; however, water that contains impurities will not freeze as quickly. Due to the salt in seawater, freezing starts at 27 degrees Fahrenheit. When water freezes it increases in volume by one eleventh. This means that when eleven cubic inches of water freezes, twelve cubic inches of ice are formed; meaning ice is lighter than water and the reason ice floats.

The formation of ice on the surface of ponds and lakes protects the animal life beneath. Ponds lose heat from the surface, and as they cool, the cold water sinks until the entire pond is at a temperature of approximately 39 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water on the top of the pond becomes even colder, it becomes lighter and remains on top instead of sinking. This top water freezes when it cools to 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

The water immediately below the ice is slightly warmer than freezing, and nearer the bottom of the pond the temperature remains at about 39 degrees Fahrenheit all winter long. In this warmer water, fish, along with other forms of life, can remain active during the most severe winters.

However, if the pond freezes over and snow cover collects on the ice and remains there for most of the winter, dead fish could be found when the ice melts. Lakes and streams breathe the same as living things and when covered with ice and snow they cannot get air and must hold their breath until the ice thaws.

During this time, the oxygen in the water is gradually used up by the fish, plants, snails and hosts of microscopic life. With prolonged ice, some of these living things die when reaching the point where they cannot stand any further oxygen starvation. However, if water plants receive enough sunlight through clear ice to produce small amounts of oxygen, suffocation could be delayed.

Structures through the ice (bridges, piers, etc.) will weaken the ice due to heat being absorbed by these structures. I can attest to the fact that the ice is thinner around a beaver house than the remainder of the ice on the beaver pond. Years back, Harold Haverly (now deceased) and I were checking beaver traps when he fell through the ice in the beaver channel.

The beavers’ activity had weakened the ice and Harold took a cold swim. Luck was with us for we were able to get Harold out of the chest-deep water and back to the vehicle where he stripped off the wet, frozen clothing. Harold had pains in his chest for months following the incident.

If you’re going to venture out onto the ice of a pond, lake or river, make sure that the ice is at least four inches thick and always have someone with you that knows the correct way to rescue a person from the frigid water. Once in the cold water a victim has only 15 minutes with the water temperature at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at www.onemaningreen.com.


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