Where Is the Ice Of Yesteryear?

As you've no doubt noticed, these pleasant effusions often take sleigh rides in August and thresh turnips in June, reversals of sequence that can be blamed on a very loose schedule where every Friday is happy and nobody gives a hooty-toot.

Today, as I write well ahead of publication, is Jan. 16, 1997. Here, equidistant from Songo Locks and Two Lights, it is raining in tumultuous enthusiasm fit to make Noah fearful. This unusual weather for Maine causes great wonder among us old folks about what happened to our good old days when the middle of January would have seven feet of snow. and a cold snap that would run into July. I wonder myself.

In my boyhood, we always got a "January thaw," when a smart no'theaster would take off the snow and leave the brown fields exposed. But always and immediately the wind would haul back after the clearing and we'd get a bouncer that would drift us in clear through maple-sugar season. Of course things have changed, or it wouldn't be raining here today.

In my boyhood our town still depended on the ice man for summer refrigeration, and each winter Weston's ice pond would be cleared of snow and made ready to harvest the crop of ice, which would always be about one-foot thick by Epiphany. You could count on it. And I bring in Epiphany on purpose, because a most important thing about our ice was the dutiful assistance of the Rev. Wallace Davison MacEllery, who was the settled minister in our local Baptist pulpit, a devout and respected student of the Scriptures, and a firm believer in community service.

Since an icehouse filled in January was essential to the town, it was his desire to be useful in the harvest. Besides, he liked the exhilarating days on the pond in the company of good fellows who tolerated him because he was a good guy rather than a respected clergyman.

It had thus become traditional for the Reverend MacEllery to stand at the foot of the runway that carried cakes of ice into the icehouse and thrust with the needlebar that separated the long strips of pond ice into 24-inch cakes. As the strips came floating by, the reverend would neatly apply the needlebar, and a single thrust would divide.

That was his job, and he did it winter after winter after winter until his palsy-walsy standing with the men was established. It is true that certain metaphors and allusions meant for less-worldly moments were amended and used on the pond (solely for the minister's attention), such as calling to him if a foolish ice-cutter fell into the pond. But it was all in good spirit.

On Sunday, the crew worked as on weekdays, but Mr. MacEllery did not. He considered inviting some available cleric to come and "supply" in his pulpit for him during ice harvest, but he felt it was not correct to make the pulpit secondary. So he would be absent from the pond and preach as usual. Thus, on Sunday mornings, Mr. MacEllery would not come, and his place down in the pond with the needlebar would be taken by Larry Grover, a powerful gentlemen who nonetheless brought no dignified spiritual values to the labor. Mr. Grover was a free-thinker, according to some, and several times had gone to the Men's Reformatory for stealing poultry.

The ice, which by Epiphany had gained a foot in thickness, continued to thicken after ice-cutting started and would soon be about 18 inches. The icehouse would be getting full. Horses were used to groove the pond and pull the ropes that raised the ice.

I never knew it to rain during ice cutting. Each morning the night's freezing would be broken around the runway and in the pond. And as the house filled, the opening in the pond became larger. It was a completely detached scene; civilization kept its distance. The cold air was hollow, and sounds were flat.

When a cake of ice slipped halfway up the runway and came galloping back down to hit the open water, it sent a cascade into the air. Because of Mr. MacEllery, the men would always sing about gathering at the river, and the faintly clerical suggestion was amazingly harmonious as it jingled about in the January chill.

There was one day that I, also doing my community bit, got the full flavor of an ice-cake splash and was sent to the heated lunch shanty to dry my clothes. Inside the shanty, beside a ram-down wood stove that was jumping with a fire, I stood while my woolens steamed. The sounds of the harvest were flat and restrained as they came to me. The team bells on the horses, as they went around and around at their chore, were muted and clacky with frost. When the men spoke, they sounded as if calling from a distant swamp with pails over their heads.

Before my clothes were ready to get into again, I had a nap in the heat of that stove, drifting off in a hazy dreamland. I remember so well how at the moment I was dunked, Breezy Collins yelled a warning "Look out!" and Mr. MacEllery followed with a helpful "Amen!"

I wanted you to hear this story, but not because it is raining plainly here in Maine today, but because some of our renegade and back-sliding townspeople gathered every Sunday morning in the Fickett livery stable, not (alas) for devotions, but to play cards. Mr. Larry Grover, aforesaid, was one of these. So on or about Epiphany one year this group broke up, and the remark was made, "See you next Sunday."

"Not me," said Larry Grover. "Ice harvest starts, and I gotta supply for Parson MacEllery."

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