Camps keeping ancient art of ice harvesting alive

By STEVE GRANT c2006, The Hartford Courant Published:

HOLDERNESS, N.H. But for the whine of the power saws, it was a scene out of the 19th century. More than a dozen people bundled against the cold worked through a windy February day, cutting 13-inch-thick cakes of ice from Squam Lake.

It was an antique activity, harvesting ice in winter for use in the summer, the way it was done until the first decades of the 20th century. Before then, ice harvesting employed many thousands of workers every winter, many in New England.

With the arrival of modern refrigeration equipment, ice harvesting collapsed almost as quickly as a Popsicle melts in the summer sun.

But it never disappeared entirely. Ice harvesting continues in a comparative handful of locations in Northern states, as it does here at the Rockywold-Deephaven Camps, where, in summer, families vacationing in rustic cottages keep beverages cool in old-fashioned wooden iceboxes. In a practice that dates to the early days of the camps 19th-century origins, camp staff deliver blocks of Squam Lake ice to the cottages every day.

People would be horrified if we didnt do this, said Arthur Howe III of East Hartford, Conn., a director of the camps that were co-founded by his great-grandmother and since the earliest days have stressed a simple, outdoors-oriented experience. People really enjoy it and appreciate it.

Ice harvesting is no longer done out of necessity, and except for truly rare circumstances, it is no longer even economically viable, because of the labor involved. But the idea of lake ice to cool a drink at a camp in summer has its charm, especially at a camp that retains a feel for simpler times and attracts families who have been coming as long as three and four generations.

Squam Lake sometimes today referred to as Golden Pond because that is where the famous movie On Golden Pond was filmed is a clear, clean lake, although the state says businesses cannot serve its water for drinking, Howe said. Still, many, and probably most, guests at the camps toss shards of Squam ice right into their drinks.

Whiskey takes better on black ice from Golden Pond, is a not-uncommon guest sentiment, said Howes father, Arthur Howe Jr. of Essex, Conn., who also is a director.

Weve had a bunch of smart managers up here, trained at the Harvard Business School, that kind of thing, the elder Howe said. After about a year, every one of them has told us, Well, you ought to get rid of those wretched things and put in some little electric refrigerators and save a lot of money.

Guests will not hear of it, he said.

To fill those cottage iceboxes, a crew including the Howes spends much of a week each winter cutting and transporting about 100 tons of ice the cakes typically weigh 120 pounds each to two wooden icehouses that themselves are relics of a long-gone time.

It is a comparatively simple process, although one that requires more care and precision than might be apparent at first glance. A field of ice is cleared, then cut into 16- by 20-inch cakes using a 36-inch specially designed saw. Chain saws with 24-inch bars handle detail work. Cakes are steered with hand tools into an open channel cut slightly wider than the cakes, up a ramp and onto waiting trucks, which take the cakes to the icehouses. The Rockywold-Deephaven icehouses have thick, hollow walls filled with sawdust as insulation.

Every step has a technique which can be performed safely and efficiently, or dangerously and inefficiently, the elder Howe said. Even with mechanical equipment, the cakes must be moved skillfully to avoid injuries.

Aside from the increasingly rare icehouses that still dot the New England landscape, there is little today to suggest the massive scale of ice harvesting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in northern New England.

Northern New England has a lot of rivers and lakes. There was a lot of opportunity. It was big business here, said Joseph Conforti, professor of American and New England Studies at the University of Southern Maine.

Frederic Tudor of Boston, a robust entrepreneurial soul, built such a huge business from ice harvesting in the 19th century that he came to be known as the ice king, shipping ice in insulated ships to many parts of the world, including India.

In interior Maine, the ice industry was a major component of the winter economy, and even in southern New England, including Connecticut, ice harvesting was extensive, especially on ponds. Until the later years of the industry, work was done with hand saws and horses.

Although it would be cheaper for Rockywold-Deephaven to manufacture ice, for David White of nearby Sandwich, ice harvesting makes economic sense. He and his wife live on 118 acres of forest, trying to live as self-sufficiently as possible with minimal impact on the environment.

We choose to live without electricity, White said.

White participates in the Rockywold-Deephaven harvest each year, filling his own custom-built, heavily insulated 8-foot square icehouse with about 130 cakes.

Im trying to lessen my impact on the planet, use less, cut back, say no. Ice helps me do that, he said. White and his wife use a single cake of ice each week to keep food cold in their heavily insulated home icebox.

It is essentially a four- or five-day investment of my time to get ice for a year, if you discount the time it takes me to put it in the icebox each week. Thats it. Five days of hard work and Im set for a year.

At Bald Mountain Camps on Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Oquossoc, Maine, ice harvesting was actually economically viable until about five years ago, when the state said the business could no longer use ice in its walk-in coolers, because on an occasional August day the temperature might exceed by a degree or two what regulations require, owner Stephen C. Philbrick said.

Philbrick switched to modern mechanical refrigerating for the walk-in coolers, but he still harvests nearly 1,000 cakes that guests use during the summer to fill their picnic coolers. It also is available for people camping on Mooselookmeguntics islands and is sold locally for special functions.

As at Rockywold-Deephaven, guests love knowing their ice comes from the lake and routinely toss it in their drinks although, again, legally, the state considers the ice safe only for cooling, Philbrick said.

From a business standpoint, it is one of the things we do to keep everybody happy, and make us attractive, he said.

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