Ice Harvesting

Before electric refrigerators (~1913), people prevented foods (milk, meat, and some fruits and veggies) from spoiling by storing them in ice boxes which were similar to large picnic coolers. Ice boxes had no freezers and food could, at best, only be kept at temperatures just above 32 degrees F. The ice box itself was a large insulated box with at least two interconnected compartments. Because cold air is more dense than warm air, ice was placed above the food establishing a natural circulation pattern. Water from the melting ice was drained away in a tube either to the outside or into a bucket. Ice had to be added every few days to replace what had melted. In larger cities, ice wagons/trucks followed routes every three or four days to replenish ice boxes. In July or August such wagons would be followed by a pack of children begging for a chip off the block before it was delivered: the equivalent treat to a popsicle today. On a larger scale, ice was used by dairies, meat processing houses, and grocery stores to prevent spoilage.

In large cities during the early 1900's, ice was artificially made in "factories" where gaseous ammonia, later replaced by non-toxic freon, was compressed to a liquid state and then allowed to expand and cool water to form ice. Before then and in rural areas, natural ice was harvested from ponds during the winter and stored in ice houses for use in other seasons. Ice houses were double walled buildings where the space between the walls was filled with an insulating material to keep the ice from melting in the warmer months following winter. A commonly used and effective insulating material was sawdust. It was packed between the walls and between blocks of ice that were cut from lakes, ponds and streams. Because early sawmills had ponds that froze often reducing water flow so the mill could not be operated as well as excess sawdust from sawing operations, harvesting and storing ice became a natural secondary business for many sawyers and allowed full use of their resources with little need for additional equipment.  

The photo to the left, taken in 1938 by Elbert Watrous, shows the Ledyard Up and Down Sawmill then owned by Harry Main. Of interest is the building to the right and back of the sawmill. It appears to be an ice house, indicating that Harry may have had a ice business. Typically such buildings had a vent on the roof to allow hot air from solar heating of the roof to rise out of the building, preserving the ice. 

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Through the generosity of Fred Allyn Sr. and the Ledyard Historic District Commision, the Ledyard Sawmill has a collection of ice harvesting equipment. Some of the equipment is thought to have been used by Fred Allyn to harvest natural ice from Sawmill Pond. Photos of the collection and a description of the tools follows. 

Harvesting Natural Ice

The general flow of work in harvesting ice was: 

Clear the Ice Before Harvesting

Several weeks before the ice was to be cut, any snow that had accumulated was cleared from its surface. Snow is an insulating material and slowed the thickening of the ice. By removing it, the ice was exposed to frigid night temperatures. Furthermore, crusty snow compared to clear ice would not store well into the summer months. Once it reached about 8" thickness, the ice was ready for harvesting.  

Score the Ice to Define Blocks to be Cut

The first step in ice harvesting was to score the ice, using a horse-drawn scorer similar to the one pictured below from the Ledyard Mill. The toothed runner on the side had sharp projections which scored a line in the ice. The object was not to cut the ice into blocks but to set up lines that men using ice saws would follow, cutting completely through the ice. 



Cutting Ice

Using  large, two-handed ice saws shown in the photo to the right, men would cut along the score lines in the ice, creating long rectangles of ice. The long rectangle was then cut into smaller blocks, by splitting it cross-wise every 16" or so using a long handled chisellike tool also shown in the photo. A pik or pike could them be used to push the ice blocks through a channel to the shore. Click on the photo to enlarge it. 

Moving Ice Blocks

Ice blocks were not lifted out of the water. They were moved through channels in the ice with the pike until they were at the shoreline. A grapple hook similar to those in the photo to the left would be used to drag the block from the water up a plank into the ice house or a wagon for transport to the ice house. Tongs would then be used to lift the blocks into the ice house and arrange them in piles with sawdust between layers and between blocks to insulate them as well to keep them from coalescing into one large mass of ice.     

To improve traction on the ice for both horses and men, a simple form of crampon was used. Shown in the photo foreground are two stirrup like devices which would have been tied on over a pair of boots, most likely one under the ball of the foot and another under the heel. The spikes would prevent a nasty fall. Two different styles of horseshoes are shown in the background. The one on the left has wedge shaped extensions that would readily dig into the ice while the other one has blunt metal extensions. 

Storing Ice

The the construction and design of ice houses can be found in the USDA Farmers' Bulletin 1078  entitled Harvesting and Storing Ice on the Farm by John Bowen published in 1920 and now available through Google Books. 

Videos of Ice Harvesting Practices

The following videos from U-tube were not taken in Ledyard, CT. However, they do show the methods used in harvesting ice, using tools similar to those on display at the mill. 

YouTube Video

YouTube Video


YouTube Video

This page originally prepared by Warren D. Dolphin