During the so-called “dog days” of high summer, we find ourselves either pulling ice cubes from those “old fashioned” and obstinate trays or – more likely¬ - listening to the clanking of the automatic ice maker churn out another batch, with increasing frequency. Among those modern conveniences we tend to take for granted is that device our mothers or grandmothers called the electric automatic refrigerator. It was not until the early 1930s that many American families plugged in that first white porcelain beauty with the prominent cylindrical compressor proudly enthroned on its top, and marveled at that first tray of ice cubes.
For three hundred years, America’s refrigeration – such as it was – depended upon a vast network of ponds, lakes and impounded rivers stretching across the northern tier of states, from which a veritable army of ice cutters worked each winter to harvest, store and distribute the nation’s supply of ice. This cumbersome business was streamlined somewhat in the 1820s when the “Boston Ice King”, Frederic Tudor hired an inventor named Nathaniel Wyeth. Wyeth developed a horse-drawn ice cutter and other ingenious machinery which reduced the cost of harvesting ice from 30 cents to ten cents per ton. By 1860, more than 97,000 tons of ice was being loaded on ships in Boston harbor each year to keep America’s food provisions fresh. Stored in large insulated ice sheds, huge blocks of ice fed the nation’s burgeoning food industry, spurred on by German beer brewing techniques which came here in the 1840s, as well as by a growing national “institution” known as ice cream.
Somewhere in the kitchen or pantry of virtually every dwelling place resided a piece of furniture known as an “ice box”, within whose insulated walls sat a chunk of ice, its drip, drip, drip the heartbeat of the kitchen. In small communities and large cities alike, the distinctive sound of the ice man’s ringing bell greeted every day. Driving a colorful wagon, or later, a Model “T” truck, leaving a trail of dripping melt water and shouting children behind him, the “ice man” delivered large chunks of crystal-cold ice from door to door. Clad in a leather apron and carrying a set of iron ice tongs, he became a fixture of everyday life, willing to share broken pieces of ice with the clamoring neighborhood kids of summer. In a city the size of Philadelphia, for instance, a single company employed 800 “ice men” at the delivery end of an industry tied to the need for household refrigeration, and completing a chain going back to a frozen pond months before and many miles away.
Even though my family owned a glistening new GE electric automatic refrigerator by the time I came along, some of the folks in our neighborhood didn’t. I looked forward to the coming of the ice man as much as anyone; the novelty of sucking on a “free” piece of melting ice was as exciting as accompanying him on his short cut across our yard on his rounds. (He also sold kerosene and coal for cook stoves from the back of his noisy chain-drive truck.) And perhaps most important, there was something reassuring about the predictability of an institution which I was too young to see as one more part of daily life which was dying.
Two other reminders of America’s ice age come to mind as each year we return to a stretch of coastal Maine which is close to our hearts. At the tip of a peninsula we frequent, near the village of South Bristol stand the restored Thompson Ice House, and the equipment and adjacent pond associated with an enterprise which prospered there for more than a century. We always stop there and walk around, admiring the beauty of the spot, and reflecting on the dedication of the local folks who care enough about the history of their community to have undertaken such an extensive restoration to honor their past, and who maintain it so beautifully. Each year – in the heart of winter – they even shovel the snow from the surface of the pond, fire up the old ice cutter, and re-enact an activity which connects them – for a few days at least - with a proud past. The ice which once came from that small pond supported the herring industry of the state of Maine, and even found its way to foreign ports.
And then . . . there comes our fifty-year “love affair” with the Luther Little and the Hesper, two double-masted schooners which once carried ice from Maine’s ponds bound for the ports of the world, including Africa; part of a fleet of specially-insulated sailing ships which became known far and wide. The two ice queens had ended their active sailing days tied up in the Sheepscot River in the village of Wiscasset, and there they began the final drift toward sleep which saw the wooden hulks sink deeper and deeper into the mud; each year of our visit finding them leaning more and more, then losing their masts, and fading away like the proverbial old soldier. It was both sad and proud. They were icons, their image even being the official emblem of the town, from the city hall to the doors of police cruisers. One expected that even in death, their oak skeletons would still be there to welcome visitors and gladden residents. Then. . . one day in the mid-1990s, after a stormy night on the Sheepscot, whoa ! They were both gone ! Not so much as a spar left floating to mark what should have been the grave spot.
We still love Wiscasset, but we will never get used to passing Red’s Hot Dog Shack on the left before turning our eyes to the right where for half of our lifetimes the Luther and the Hesper kept watch. Like the cargoes of ice they once carried, they have melted into history.