Ice- The Cold Harvest

Originally published in The Smithfield Times magazine – January, 2022

Ice – The Cold Harvest

By Jim Ignasher   

Ice Harvesting

     It’s hard to imagine with 21st century refrigerators equipped with ice makers, that there was a time when ice was considered a luxury, and that men once risked their lives to “harvest it” for market.

     The idea of using ice to cool drinks and preserve food dates to ancient times, but because of its perishable nature, ice was practically unheard of in warmer climates until the early 1800s. That began to change when Frederic Tudor of Boston discovered a way to preserve ice aboard ships bound for southern locales, thus giving birth to the ice trade in America. By the 1840s ice was being shipped to various tropical ports worldwide. Packed with that ice were various perishable foods that otherwise couldn’t have been shipped. The ice aboard many of those ships was collected from New England ponds and lakes, and by the later part of the century “ice harvesting” had become big business.

     Ice harvesting existed on a small scale too. Some early New England farmers would collect it in the winter and store it in primitive stone-lined chambers built into the side of hills, but these were not commercial enterprises.

     By the mid to late 1800s commercial ice houses began appearing along the shores of many larger bodies of water across the northeast. Here in Smithfield there was the Providence Ice Company with houses in Spragueville and Georgiaville, the Auburn Ice Company on Georgiaville Pond, the Winsor Ice House in Greenville, and a large ice house owned by Arthur Sibille at the end of Sibille Road in Esmond. It’s possible there were others.

     Commercial ice houses were usually large such as two on Georgiaville Pond which measured 400 by 100 feet, and 120 by 60 feet.

     Ice houses were constructed of thick wood timbers, with double walls more than twelve inches thick. The space between the walls was filled with straw and sawdust for insulation. The roof was also insulated, thereby making the house a giant cooler which allowed the ice to remain frozen throughout the summer months.

     Ice harvesting was cold, sometimes wet, and always dangerous work. One documented accident took place on Georgiaville Pond in1899 where a man broke his leg when a horse fell through the ice and drowned.

     Early harvesting was done using a horse drawn ice cutter, the blade of which was set to a particular depth depending on the thickness of the ice which could be up to eighteen inches. Blocks of ice would be taken by sled to the ice house where they would be packed in sawdust purchased from local lumber mills and stacked to the rafters.

     By the early 20th century more efficient mechanical ice cutters came into use thus increasing productivity.

     And one has to consider that ice from a pond might have contained certain “impurities” such as leaves or sticks.

     Prior to the advent of electric refrigeration, the up-to-date modern kitchen had an “ice box” which often looked more like a piece of furniture than an appliance. Many were made of polished oak with fancy brass hardware and lined with zinc or porcelain. A large block of ice placed in a covered tray at the top kept the food below cold, or at least chilled. Today antique ice boxes are sought after by collectors.

     Ice was delivered to homes by “the iceman” who traveled his route with an insulated wagon. Subscribers had numbered cards that they would place in a front window to signal they needed ice, and how much. In summer months children would flock to the wagon hoping for a few scraps with which to cool off.

     The ice houses on Georgiaville Pond were conveniently located next to the rail line that once came through town. Unfortunately, this was also a detriment, for on May 5, 1892, sparks from a passing train were blamed for starting a fire which destroyed the structures belonging to the Auburn Ice Company. When it was over, the outer walls were gone, and only the stacked blocks of ice remained.

     A similar fire took place on the night of April 20, 1915, when two ice houses belonging to the Providence Ice Company burned. A (Woonsocket) Evening Call newspaper article reported that “The blaze illuminated the sky for miles, and the sparks and burning brands, carried by the wind, kept the people of Georgiaville and Esmond, in Smithfield, fighting incipient fires on the roofs of buildings.” It was also reported that “A heavy timber growth on an island in Georgiaville Pond was set on fire and burned briskly all night.”

     It was later determined that the fire had been deliberately set.

     By 1930 electric refrigerators and mechanical ice making techniques gradually began to eliminate the need for ice harvesting, ice houses, and home ice deliveries, and thus the industry “melted away”, so to speak.

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