When ice came in cakes

Did you know that not that many years ago, probably when your grandparents were small, refrigeration didn't exist? Instead, people relied on ice to keep their food cool. Each week, the ice was delivered to people's houses in large blocks called ``cakes.'' These cakes were placed inside the top of your ``icebox,'' where they could keep everything cool for several days. Where did the ice come from? At first, the ice was cut out of ponds and rivers in the Northeast during the winter months. From about 1800 to 1900, natural ice harvesting was a huge industry in this country. Ice from America's Northeast was shipped all over the world. Twenty-five million tons were harvested in 1886 alone!

Ice harvesting was cold and dangerous work. For several months, teams of men would work long, difficult hours, sawing the ice out of the water and hauling it to shore. After the ice was removed, it was packed in sawdust or straw and stored in large commercial icehouses, where it would keep for up to two years!

As it happened, technology changed the ice industry. With the invention of refrigeration and icemaking machines in the late 1800s, the business rapidly collapsed. Today, ice harvesting is practically a forgotten craft.

Nowadays, a man named Phil Whitney travels all over New England during the winter months, demonstrating this lost art. He and his family use his large collection of authentic antique tools to harvest the ice just as men did in the past.

Recently, Mr. Whitney was at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center in Stamford, Conn., where he put his tools to work. The first thing he showed us was how to drill a hole to test for the thickness of the ice. Ice could be harvested as thin as three or four inches, but was preferred to be from eight to 12 inches.

Next, the men would cut a large hole in the ice and chisel open a channel. Then, using a special sharp tool or a horse-drawn plow, they would lay out a large ``checkerboard'' pattern across the ice. After the ice was marked, it was sawed off into standard-sized blocks. Each block weighed about 350 pounds! Men using long poles called ``ice pikes'' floated the ice out of the channel and up a ramp. From there it was loaded onto special carts or elevator belts and taken to the icehouse.

On the weekend that we visited Mr. Whitney, several people who had actually worked as ice harvesters also came to watch. One man remembered as a young boy racing to the icehouse on his bike after school and being allowed to work all night. Another woman said that the best part of the ice harvesting didn't happen until summer. Why? Because that's when all the children would get together and have an ice cream party!

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