River Views: Breaking the ice was big business

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The benefits of a cold winter were truly appreciated many decades ago when the ice man made his rounds on a hot summer day to fill the family’s ice box.

This area’s ice business peaked in the years just before 1920 as many tons of ice were cut from the Androscoggin River, Lake Auburn and Taylor Pond. On the coldest days of January and February, hundreds of men took advantage of the winter’s frozen bounty. They cleared snow, cut large rafts of ice and opened channels through which they floated their harvest to huge ice storage houses on the shores of the waterways.

The ice cutting season was important to the entire community. For many men, it meant welcome winter employment for a while. I recall stories of ice cutting told by my father and grandfather. My great-grandmother’s diary had numerous references to the “men folk” being away for a day’s work in the woods or to cut ice for use on the farm.

This fascinating period of history really came into focus for me when I read an account of L-A’s ice industry written by Ralph B. Skinner, our cities’ noted historian. He wrote clear descriptions of the process, and included some enlightening old photos.

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Skinner said 140 men and more than 30 horses were kept busy most of the winter at the peak of the activity. A good number of them also had year-round employment with storage, handling and delivery needs.

The ice cutting fields, areas of river and lake ice that had been proven to be most accessible and productive, had to be kept clear of snow every day of the winter. After some storms, when ice thickness was safe, as many as 32 teams of horses pulled scrapers.

As the end of winter neared, the pace picked up dramatically. The ice was ready for harvest just before it “honeycombed,” and warmer days meant the ice cakes “slipped awful good” when the surface was melting slightly.

“The cutting was no haphazard process,” Skinner wrote. “First, the cakes were marked off on the ice surface with horse-drawn groovers. Then, sheets of 10-by-30 cakes were sawed out, and men pick-poled them down river toward the sluiceway.”

The saws were about five feet long with large teeth and a cross-ways handle for one or two men. We still have one or two such saws stored in a back corner of our Echo Farm barn in Auburn.

As the ice rafts neared the ice houses, Skinner explained, other men with long-handled chisels broke them into separate cakes for their run up the endless-chain runway, to the ramps at increasing levels of the ice house. On the way up, the 22- by 22-inch cakes were mechanically shaved to about a one-foot thickness. These dimensions made a 200-pound cake.

At the opening to the house along the ramp stood workmen inside, to “hook in” the passing cakes and push them into their storage position, Skinner wrote. The walls of the ice houses were insulated with sawdust. Hay was placed on the topmost layer to prevent melting.

Most of the ice was floated directly to the big ice houses. If cakes were cut further away, whole loads of ice cakes were slipped onto two-horse sleds by use of horse-pulled block and tackle at the edge of the ice-cut and hauled to the ice houses for storage.

The account by Skinner identifies numerous ice house locations used in the 40-year span of area cutting operations. A large house was on Canal Street above the Maine Central Railroad bridge. There was an ice field on the Little Androscoggin River, too. It was in use some years after construction of Gulf Island Dam in the early 1920s halted ice production above the Great Falls because the rise and fall of the river prevented thick ice from forming.

In later years, Lake Auburn Crystal Ice Co. had a large ice storage house at Lake Grove, and there were ice houses on the west side of the lake. Taylor Pond Ice Co. also became a significant supplier before ice cutting waned in the 1930s.

Skinner’s story in the Feb. 22, 1964, Lewiston Journal Magazine Section details much more of the Twin Cities’ ice industry, noting that in a peak year production amounted to some 300,000 tons.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to dasargent@maine.com.

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