Ice was nice

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No snow, no ice and no profit for a lot of winter-based businesses.

An “open winter” is a serious situation for many Maine people, from the family man with a snowplow to major ski resorts.

There’s one industry that would be in real trouble this winter, if it hadn’t already gone the way of the buggy whip. That’s ice harvesting, and it was big business more than a century ago.

Our old barn holds some reminders of the days when cakes of ice were cut from area ponds. There are some hefty cast iron ice tongs, and a long saw with off-set handles at one end.

And there’s a brief entry from my grandmother’s diary kept in the Great Depression era that said “Fred and Walter (my grandfather and father) are cutting ice today.”

Ice harvesting along the Androscoggin River never reached the scale of operations on other Maine rivers. I remember an ice house on the west shore of Lake Auburn, and there was a storage building on Newberry Street where blocks as big as hay bales were packed in sawdust to keep them through the summer heat.

Although refrigerators were common when I was young, some people still bought ice for their big oak ice chests in the pantry.

We visited the ice house every Fourth of July. Dad would order a good-sized chunk and a worker would split it off a large block and send it clattering down a wooden chute.

At home, it went into a burlap bag to be smashed with axes and sledge hammers. Mixed with rock salt, the pieces filled a wooden hand-cranked ice cream maker that produced the world’s best vanilla ice cream.

Many local farmers cut their own ice supply every winter. It came from ponds or lakes, and maybe from the Androscoggin in the years before paper mills and dams. My father and grandfather were probably cutting ice for a commercial crew rather than for their own use.

Elsewhere in Maine, the ice harvest was spectacular. The blocks were called “Kennebec Diamonds” on that river. Ice was in great demand in cities to the south. It ranked second only to cotton as an American export, and a lot of it came from Maine.

The first ice shipped out of Maine came from Lily Pond in Bath in 1815. By 1886, the Kennebec harvest was more than a million tons a year and it went as far as the Caribbean and the Gulf States.

The Androscoggin didn’t have major ports such as Bangor, Bath and Portland, so this area’s ice harvests were modest.

The harvests are gone, as well as the days when skaters could be seen from shore to shore on the smooth ice below what was then called North Bridge. There also was a time when ice boats competed at Lake Auburn and horse races were held on the Androscoggin River ice at Lisbon and above the L-A falls.

Not this year, and never again.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and an Auburn native. You can contact him at dasargent@maine.com.

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