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.

Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

Even though I initially thought “ice harvesting” was a joke, it makes sense that fresh, wild ice was in high demand in a pre-refrigerator world. Harvested ice was pretty much the only way to keep food cold and preserved before the invention of freon refrigeration in the early 1900s. Until after the Civil War, ice was a luxury, but popularized as the middle class grew and Americans added more perishable items like dairy and fresh produce to their diets.

Home refrigerators brought an end to ice exports in the 1920s, although harvesting continued for local purposes. Apparently, river pollution and fear of typhoid fever also inclined customers toward the manufactured product (though, notably, pure harvested ice lasts longer than ice produced through refrigeration because it contains less air).

Credit: Courtesy of Spencer Gregory

Today, some Mainers still harvest ice for camps or off-grid homesteads, but in our modern refrigerated world, most ice harvesting takes place in historical reenactments and events across the state. Believe it or not, there are not a lot of ice harvesting opportunities in the suburbs of Washington D.C. where I grew up, so I have never had the pleasure of slicing my ice right out of the river. I figured ice harvesting would be a great way to develop a true-blue traditional homesteading skill and dip my toes (or, hopefully, not) in a little Maine tradition.

[Watch: Here’s what it’s like to go ice harvesting in Maine]

Learning to try

Every year, the 19th Century Curran Villages in Orrington host a public ice harvest demonstration on Fields Pond. This year, though, a bout of warm weather made for extra-thin ice, which is not ideal for crowds of people to gather and chip away at.

Bob Schmick, the museum director at the 19th century Curran Villages in Orrington, said that he and I could go anyway, even though the event wasn’t technically open to the public. The ice was still stable, he explained, and commercial ice harvesters would have preferred today’s thickness, anyway, so it was a more authentic experience.

Credit: Alexander Cole | BDN

Besides, he said, if I fell through, he would just pull me out.

Shmick told me that, through the process of collecting oral histories for the 19th Century Curran Villages, he spoke to what he believes to be the last commercial ice harvesters on Fields Pond. The men told him they went to fight in World War II in the South Pacific in 1941 and came back to find that their jobs had been replaced by refrigeration.

Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

The price of the tools might get in the way, too. There are a few specialized tools required for a successful ice harvest, including a long ice saw (today, some reenactors will use chainsaws to save time), a breaker bar and giant pincers, known as gaffs, to lift the ice. Some later ice harvesters, Schmick explained, used motorized ice harvesters. He even showed me a machine from 1919 that the museum had recently restored.

Ice harvesters often also used ice houses for storage, which were double-walled and tightly insulated with straw or sawdust. Schmick said the ice would keep for a year or longer in these structures. Small ice houses were built by private landowners, but commercial ice houses could store as much as 80,000 tons of ice. According to Schmick, there was once an ice house in Utica, New York, that spanned 20 acres. The expanse of ice was so large that large clouds of condensation would form over the ice in the building and create rain.

Though Schmick said that there is an ice house on the Curran Villages property, we would be using an ice box, an insulated cabinet-like apparatus normally used by families receiving ice deliveries — the original “refrigerators.”

A trying experience

We gathered a wheelbarrow full of antique ice harvesting tools and schlepped out to Fields Pond. I tentatively stepped out onto the ice, still not convinced that the heavy equipment and I wouldn’t fall through. Luckily, the ice held.

Lugging a wheelbarrow across the ice was a challenge of balance, core-strength and willpower. Schmick led me to a spot where he had already picked a hole in the ice, and we used the breaker bar to pry the opening a little larger. Slamming the splitting bar on the ice was an arm workout. I was timid at first, but I put my back into it and eventually got into the groove.

Then, Schmick demonstrated proper ice sawing technique: a rolling, circular motion, a full-body workout. I thought back to when my dentist explained I should be brushing my teeth in circular motion instead of up and down, like I had been. My sawing technique felt about the same, but Schmick said I was still doing well.

Lifting the ice (which Schmick said was a “cake,” not a block) was like trying to fish out a prize with a slippery claw machine. Finally, with a little grunting and under-my-breath swearing, I was able to deadlift the cake out of the water. Schmick admitted later that he had special pinschers to lift ice cakes out of the water that were a little bit longer, but he had forgotten about them. I scowled.

Credit: Courtesy of Alexander Cole

We wheeled our tools and the cake of ice back up the snow-covered hill (which may have been the hardest workout of all). Then, it was time to transfer the cake to the ice box.

Carrying the cake to the ice box was nerve-wracking. I didn’t want to drop it and split it or get it dirty. Schmick showed me how the cakes were traditionally carried by throwing it over the shoulder. I dumbstruck nervous by the maneuver, which looked uncomfortable, if not impossible. When Schmick put the block down, though, he serendipitously split it in two, which made it easier for my weak arms to transport.

Credit: Alexander Cole | BDN

I pinched the block, lifted with my knees and wobbled to the ice box, where a crowd of people who had been following the entire ice harvesting journey (at their own risk, Schmick told them, reminding them of the thin ice) was waiting for me. We slipped it into the ice box awkwardly, but successfully. Bob and I high-fived.

“There’s cake in the ice box,” I told a few onlookers. They laughed politely, but I beamed, feeling, in some small way, more of a Mainer than I was before.

My tried-and-true takeaways

Ice harvesting is certainly not for the faint of heart. The skill requires a fair number of special antique tools and knowledge of proper ice safety protocol in order to execute it safely and successfully.

However, with an expert guide like Schmick, ice harvesting was fun, fascinating and a wonderful way to connect to the past in Maine. Plus, it may give you a newfound appreciation for your refrigerator. I, for one, went home and hugged mine.