Warren County Historical Society Presents …

The Digital Version “REWIND”

March 15, 2018

Winter Harvest

            Ice harvest was eagerly looked forward to by hundreds of laboring men along the waterways and ponds of the North Country.  Ice or no ice sometimes meant bread or no bread to many families, and it meant added or diminished comfort to many more.

 

            Ice was a ‘crop’ that took two or three weeks of rugged winter weather to grow, even longer if the water was brackish or roiled.  The ice was seldom worked until it presented seven or eight inches of clear-water ice.

 

            Men would go out from time-to-time to check the ice to see when it was ‘ripe’ to cut.  If there was a deep fall of snow, the ice was “pricked” so as to let the water up through and form snow ice.

 

 

            A band of fifteen or twenty men, walking about a yard apart, each armed with a chisel-bar, marching in line, would be puncturing the ice at each step, with a single sharp thrust.  Walking to and fro across the ice they would go, leaving a belt behind them that became saturated with water.  Ice, to be first quality, must grow from beneath, not from above.

 

            The ice crop any winter could be as uncertain as any other crop; sometimes a good yield came every two or three years.  When there was an abundant harvest, after the ice houses were filled, the men stacked large quantities of it as a farmer would stack his hay.  The stacks were given a temporary covering of boards and were the first removed of the season.  According to Scribner’s Monthly of 1880, the 1874-75 ice crop produced a fruitful harvest when the ice formed twenty inches thick.

 

            The cutting and gathering of the ice revealed blue-black canals which ran across the pond or river; this was the highway that opened the field.  On either side were the fields, or ice meadows, each marked out by cedar or hemlock boughs. 

 

            The farthest would be cut first, and when cleared, the next was cut, leaving a strip or tongue of ice between the two for the horses to move and turn upon.  Sometimes on rivers or large ponds, nearly 200 men and boys with numerous horses would all be at work at one time, marking, plowing, planning, scraping, sawing, hauling, chiseling and more.

 

            Some of the workers would be floating down the pond on great square islands towed by a horse – or their fellow workmen.  Others were distributed along the canal, bending to their ice-hooks; others on bridges separating the blocks with their chisel-bars; still others feeding the elevators.

 

            The best crop of ice is the early crop.  Late in the season or after January, the ice was likely to get “sun-struck” and become shaky – like a poor piece of timber.  The sun does not simply melt it from the surface but send the sun shafts into it and separates the ice into spikes and needles.  In short, it makes kindling wood of it.

 

            This author is just old enough to remember the ice-man as he delivered ice to the few homes on our street that still had ice boxes.  Over the years, my brother and I would chuckle whenever our Grandmother and later our Mother referred to the refrigerator as the “ice box.”

 

 

This article was prepared for the Warren County Historical Society by Judy Hunter Melkonian.  Judy is currently serving as Vice-President and Collections Manager of the organization.

 

Warren County Historical Society // 50 Gurney Lane // Queensbury, NY 12804 // (518) 743-0734

 

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