Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ice Harvest in the North Woods

On the brick wall of my parent's kitchen wall hangs my grandfather's ice hook.

When I see it, I'm catapulted back to childhood memories of visits to Northern Michigan, riding past a frozen Lake Kathleen on Woodland Road. It's that scene that spurred the idea for the back drop of my manuscript--where the waters were dammed for local ice harvest.

Before refrigeration in the 1920's, ice was harvested and stored for use well into the summer months. It was shipped by rail to nearby towns and cities. The harvest season was late January to February. The harvest industry was fiercely competitive. They had crews of men who scraped the snow off the ice surface.

(free public domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Horse drawn markers would grid out fields into "cakes" or sections of ice about 22x23inches. Using horse drawn cutters, the ice workers deepened the marked grooves. 

(free public domain: Wikimedia Commons)

The cakes were easily separated with hand saws and funneled to channels that led to the ice house for storage. 
(free public domain: Wikimedia Commons)

A horse, or steam powered leverage system transferred the ice cakes onto chutes that led to vast internal rooms where the cakes were carefully stacked.

(Free public domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Then late in spring, the ice blocks were slid down wooden ramps into waiting barges for trips to such places as New York City. 

The work was transient and required a temporary work force that often overwhelmed the smaller towns of the North, filling the local hotels and boarding houses. Men often came for miles about for work, including construction workers, trappers, farmers, shingle makers, painters, and tannery workers. Such men may have been unaccustomed to industrial work. Laborers often included women as well, and a mix of cultures such as Irish and Italian workers. Work stoppages were common with unpredictable thaws and sub-zero weather changes. Maintaining order for several hundred men was a problem, especially during strikes. 

The supply and demand of the market made for a rush to be the first, or the best supplier. The business was bitterly competitive. This competition drove secrecy about actual tonnages stored, and also sabotage against rival ice yards. 

So, next time you fill your glass with ice cubes, don't forget the intensive labor of ice harvest in the 19th century. 

What would it have been like to be a sheriff providing order in a small northern town overrun by harvest workers? 

Do you have a piece of  history, such as my grandfather's ice hook, handed down in your family that makes you curious about its origin or use?

Blog post by Anne Love-
Writer of Historical Romance inspired by her family roots. 
Nurse Practitioner by day. 
Wife, mother, writer by night. 
Coffee drinker--any time.
Find me on:Facebook
Find me on: Pinterest
Find me on: Goodreads
Find me on: Twitter


  1. How interesting. No, I don't have a piece of history from my family. I think it's interesting to see how the ice harvest was done. I do recall hearing about the olden days, before refrigeration was used, that a lot of homes had ice boxes. I'd also heard that folks would buy ice from the ice man when he came through town.

    ~Cecelia Dowdy~


Hey friend! Please leave a comment, no lurking allowed ;)