Tales of the frozen harvest

Any law library that is old enough and complete enough will have a substantial volume in leather binding with the title "Gould on Waters." A very distant kinsman, both in time and in generation, compiled this book, and the nonlegal reader will be astounded that so many lawsuits prevailed in Colonial days over riparian rights, navigational privileges, use of waters and such related matters as ditching and drainage. The reader will also be amused that so many citations came out of the State o' Maine, but this is not so amazing when you consider that Maine's ponds, rivers, and ocean were earliest involved in our developments. Here's where many things started. The general philosophy of public right to natural resources is known in Maine as the Great Ponds Law, but it is not an enacted statute as such, but the general accumulation of the lore. Private interests cannot exclude an inhabitant from approaching the "great ponds" of Maine if his purpose lies within his accepted rights. The ocean is included, and any other body of water over 10 acres in area. One of those rights, and the subject of this morning's dissertation, is cutting ice. Is it not good to know that in this era of eroding privileges, when the citizen is deprived more and more of more and more, but bureaucrats have not meddled in this freedom, and I can go just about anywhere I please and cut all the ice I want?

Nobody cuts pond ice much now, unless he's contriving to get his picture in the papers, but before mechanical coolth it was big business. Maine's Kennebec River was lined with great rambling icehouses where blocks of winter ice were stored by the millions of tons, to be dug from the sawdust insulation when ships could come up from the ocean again, and to be delivered all over the world. Then each town had its local iceman, who filled his house and also sold block ice to farmers who had their own storage. Summer resorts, nailed shut on Labor Day, would gather a crew each winter, tote in supplies, and fill an icehouse against the resumption of guest count in July.

The harvest would start when the pond ice was about eight inches thick. The blocks would be thicker than that by the time they were in the icehouse, but allowance had to be made for several sharp nights after the snow cover was taken off and before the first cakes went up the runway. Snow insulates, and once it was cleared away the thickness of the ice increased that much faster. Horses were the power, and men all roly-poly in many garments sawed and split the ice, towed it with long-handled hooks to the runway, and earned just about a week's pay. After about a week of good weather, the icehouse would be full, and the pond ice would be too thick to handle. I think I was 13 the first year I helped harvest ice, and I continued through high school. Cutting ice was an acceptable excuse for no-school.

There was, of course, no special profession of ice cutters. The job had to be done in a hurry, and anybody with a free day or week was welcomed and well paid. In our town, the Baptist minister always came, looking most unclerical in four or five mackinaws, and as he was a stout fellow he always stood by the runway and pushed cakes into the hoisting frame. If ice cutting ran over the Sunday, he would do his pulpit work and Buster Loring would take his place at the runway. Buster would, naturally, tell people he had "supplied" for the Reverend, and this was amusing enough if you knew Buster. The Reverend never drew his wages, but helped gesture. The iceman, in consequence, always kept the ice chest at the parsonage filled with free ice (Eccl. 11:1).

It was a cold week. It built appetites, and my mother said no ice cutter ever earned enough to pay for his food. It was fun. There was good-natured banter, but an earnestness in completing the job as swiftly as possible. If there came a thaw . . . .

Then on the next full moon, the iceman put on his oyster stew. His heavy work- horses would be on a hayrack of straw, and all his crew, with spouses and friends, would ride out to a rural schoolhouse. After the stew, desks were pushed back for a dance, and after the dance we sledded back to town, bells ajingle and ice cutting finished until another January. The Great Ponds Law says you can still do that if you want to.

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