My uncle was the local iceman, and every year about Epiphany he would assemble a crew and harvest ice for summer sales. His ice pond and rambling icehouse were better than a mile out of town, and for a week or 10 days just about every man in town joined in the task, which began when the ice was maybe 14 inches thick and ended when the house was full of tiered cakes covered with sawdust.
As his mainstay for this unclerical operation, my Uncle Fred relied on the Rev. Mr. Arthur Whipple Bronson, the Baptist minister. Mr. Bronson was a hearty, outgoing man everybody liked. After a few Januarys, he had become the key man in the crew: He floated the cakes of ice into position for the carriage that lifted them up to the runway where they slid into the house for storage.
As the pond was opened for the harvest, a first strip of ice was removed for a channel. Strips of ice were brought by this channel to the carriage. Four cakes at a time were fitted into the carriage, and by rope and pulleys the carriage was pulled up by a team of horses. While that team was coming back, another team was taking the carriage up again. So the Rev. Mr. Bronson was busy all day except for nooning, and he loved it. He was always jolly, and nobody else in town could attend carriage as he did.
There was a drawback.
Every now and then, as the horses drew the carriage of ice cakes up the ramp, the carriage would slip, the ice would slide free, and down the ramp would come nigh a ton of ice under the spell of gravity. It would slam into the cold pond water and cause a geyser to mount into the solar system. It would drench a man and knock him galley-west if he stayed around. But when the carriage slipped, the first teamster would yell "Whoa!" as his horses lurched in their idle traces. The other teamster would shout, "Look out!"
Knowing well what this betided, the 20 or so workmen would look up to see the cascade of pond water and the Rev. Mr. Bronson running for dear life. It was a tense and dramatic moment until the cascade of water fell and the minister was safe. Then the entire crew joined in a reverent "AAA-MEN!" It traveled on the crisp winter air and could be heard a mile down the road.
When I got bigger, my uncle found things for me to do, and I helped cut ice to the extent that I could attend the oyster-stew supper that he arranged as thanks to his crew. This came on a Saturday after the ice was tiered and insulated. One of the teams would pull a two-sled with a rack-body lined with hay. At the stated time, the crew - and ladies - would be picked up and trotted to Minniebrook Hall with team bells a-going.
After the stew and a few songs, Uncle Fred would thank his harvest crew, wish them a good new year, and everybody climbed into the rack for the ride home. It might be a moonlit evening, but it was January cold with plenty of snow, and the team bells clacked in the night air. The ride always took the long way 'round and dropped folks off by their front doors. It's hard to believe the invention of the Frigidaire spoiled so much good fun.
During three of my high school summers, I delivered ice about town for my uncle. Els Miller and I had a team and cart for two summers, and then Els drove the first truck my uncle owned the third summer. We did one end of town one day, and the other end next day. I wasn't big enough to get a 50-cent piece of ice up a flight of stairs. So Els did that, and I was the 10-cent expert.
We'd go to the icehouse each morning and dig our supply of ice from the sawdust, and then go up one street and down the next looking for ice cards in front windows. If someone wanted ice, they put up a card, indicating the size by the top side.
We had scales, but we never weighed a piece. Els could chisel ice to the ounce, and I got fairly good at it. Nine times out of 10 the 10-cent lady would ask me to empty her drip pan, a service for which I made no charge.
My most memorable customer was Mrs. Fogarty, who had the third-floor flat in Poverty Block. I never knew how it got that name. She had an enclosed entry where her ice chest needed a 10-cent piece twice weekly.
Els permitted me the honor. First, Mrs. Fogarty asked me to empty her drip pan, and said not to carry it into the kitchen to the sink, as her "dreen" was reluctant, but just to "let her go" over the railing. I did, and then I looked down to see all the folks on the street below looking up at me. (I dumped Mrs. Fogarty's drip pan many times, but after that first time always waited for a clear field.)
On my first visit to Mrs. Fogarty, I found she liked eels. When I opened the top of her ice chest, six or eight energetic eels leaped at me, fell to the floor, and began trotting about. "Oh," said Mrs. Fogarty to me, "You're new! I should have told you! Be careful with my eels!"
That's all I know about Mrs. Fogarty's eels. An eel is not necessarily a beautiful creature, although they can live out of water for many days if you keep them cool. To have eels leap at you from an ice chest can be disconcerting. After I got the eels back on ice, Mrs. Fogarty gave me 10 cents, and I went down to join Els.
Els said, "What kept you?"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society