Ice harvesting was a thriving industry in 19th-century New England. Using large, jagged-toothed saws, workers would cut heavy blocks from frozen rivers, lakes and ponds, pack it in sawdust and sell it around the world. Then came electric refrigeration, and ice-cutting became all but obsolete. But there are still a few places where the tradition is carried on.
It was a postcard-perfect winter scene — a small, snow-covered pond framed by tall trees and a rustic barn. Here in South Bristol, Ken Lincoln and several other men were out early in the morning, doing what they learned to do as kids. They were removing the first blocks of ice from the pond.
Lincoln is the president of the Thompson Ice House Preservation Corp., which operates an on-site museum and sponsors the old-fashioned ice harvest every Presidents Day weekend. He wears thick coveralls and ice grippers on his boots because this is slippery work.
“Every year someone ends up in the pond, but no tragedies. We grab ’em out pretty quick,” he said with a laugh.
First, a checkerboard-style design was carved onto the pond’s surface using a tool called a scribe. Then volunteers used handsaws and ice picks to break off the blocks, one row at a time.
People of all ages were encouraged to participate. Issac Ezzell, 9, helped his father, James, guide the ice blocks along an open channel of water toward the icehouse, where they will be stored.
“I was doing this since I was 6,” Issac said, but his father corrected him.
“You did it before you were 6. I think we had you here when you were 4 for your first time,” James Ezell said.
Lincoln himself grew up skating on the pond. He also learned traditional ice harvesting techniques, and when he got older, he worked for a small commercial ice operation that ended several decades ago. The annual ice harvest is an outgrowth of that.
“If we didn’t do this it would go away and be forgotten. This is one way to keep it a working history,” he said.
By midmorning, a crowd had gathered. The 250-pound ice blocks were pushed up a wooden ramp and hoisted by pulley into the icehouse, which was insulated with several inches of sawdust. The ice blocks glide in like giant, high-speed hockey pucks. Energetic “wranglers” dodge the heavy blocks, spear them with long picks and stack them, one layer at a time, until the icehouse is nearly full.
“It’s very scary to watch,” said Karen Pride of Portland. “You can see that if something did not go right it would be very bad.”
Outside, Johanna Gauvreau and Justin Smith of Portland sat in heated folding chairs, eating chili and chowder and watching three generations of volunteers take part in the effort. In the past, the couple had helped out, but Gauvreau said this year they were concerned about the thickness of the ice.
“It looked a little slippery, a little thin, and I don’t have the greatest balance, so we thought we’d just be spectators this year,” she said.
“But supporting the spirit,” Smith said.
This year the ice is about 9 inches thick. That’s several inches less than normal, but Lincoln said winter seems to be arriving a little later each year. Still, it’s enough ice to sell to local fishermen and boaters and to save for a popular ice cream social in July.
More importantly, Lincoln said, it’s a way to keep this chapter of New England history frozen in time.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.