"With special thanks to Larry Gormally and the Springfield Journal"

Springfield Journal

Vol. 26.  No. 16 February 8, 2001  Springfield, Massachusetts

Local History


If we were back in the early 20th century, it would be that time of year again; time to start ice harvesting so that the housewife, restaurants, bars, railroads, and other large users of ice will have their regular supply of ice. The iceman would start his regular deliveries around Memorial Day, and continued until Labor Day.

Cutting ice on lakes, ponds and rivers in the Connecticut Valley was a flourishing business until the late thirties when refrigerators replaced the icebox. It was a seasonal business, starting in late December or early January and continuing until the icehouses were full, usually in February, depending on weather conditions, when the crews finished cutting and the icehouses were full. Weather was a deciding factor in the ice harvesting business. Ice was ready for cutting when it had reached a thickness of l2 inches. The ideal time for cutting ice was when the temperature read 32 degrees. It was then easy on the crew, horses, and equipment. Once the cutting started, the crews worked seven days a week until the icehouses were full. Even when the temperature reached zero or lower, the work continued. However, if rain arrived, it usually forced the crew to stop cutting until the storm was over. Fog was also a problem. The workday usually started around 4 a.m. The foreman prepared the equipment to be used. When horses were utilized, they had to be harnessed and taken to the pond. The majority of the crew arrived around 6 a.m. and started at 7, finishing their day around 4 p.m. The horses were then led back to the barn, harnesses removed, and then watered and fed. Horses were also used for plowing snow, and hauling cutting equipment. They were shod with special shoes, with caulks so that they could walk on the ice. Meanwhile, The ice workers used creepers on their shoes.

The size of the crew depended on the size of the business. The small firm catering to one neighborhood or small communities might use 10 to 20 men. The larger firms could use several hundred men depending on the size of the pond and the number of customers. High school students could be used on weekends and school vacations, but not for hazardous jobs, such as cutting ice, which was dangerous and could result in severe cuts if the user was not trained. Additionally, working outdoors in the cold weather led to frostbite and other problems, particularly if the men were not properly clothed. Wages depended on the skill required. During the 1920s and 1930s, the more experienced men would be paid up to five dollars a day while the less experienced would make as low as two dollars a day. The work went on during the coldest part of the winter, when there was usually a number of unemployed available. Many of these included Italian, Irish, Polish, and Swedish immigrants.

Ice harvesting could start as early as December. During this month, though, thaws were frequent, delaying the work. Depending on the weather, ice harvesting would continue in January and February. Along with the early thaws, snowstorms were also a problem, as the ice would have to be plowed to remove the snow.

But overall, ice harvesting was not a complex project. The operation started when the foreman would mark the area to cut, leading up to the icehouse. Horses were used to haul marking equipment in the early days. Once the marking was completed, the cutting would start with a lane cut to the conveyor leading to the icehouse. The ice would then be cut to the desired size. Members of the crew, equipped with large poles, would push the ice in the direction of the conveyor. Prior to going on the conveyor, the ice would be cut to the desired size for storage in the icehouse. When they reached the top, another crew of men would be working inside the icehouse, steering the cakes to the proper area for stacking. A planer would then shave off the upper surface of the cake to remove impurities. The cakes were covered with hay, rye straw, or sawdust to keep the ice frozen until it was time for delivery to the customer.

The iceman would start preparing their vehicles and other equipment in the early spring. Customers would be notified that deliveries would start on a specific date by cards that were distributed and that were placed in the front windows of homes to advise the iceman on the amount of ice required. Deliveries would typically start around Memorial Day, and each iceman would usually start his day around 6 a.m. He had to harness his horse to the wagon, and back up to the loading platform, where he would be assisted by the icehouse crew. The iceman then drove to his route and would start making deliveries to customers about 8 a.m. The housewife would place the card in the front room window in a position indicating the amount of ice required. The driver would cut the desired amount, weigh it on his scale and deliver it to the customer, carrying it on his back with a pair of ice tongs. He used a rubber-covered garment on his back to keep his clothes dry. The iceman always had a group of children around the back of the wagon to pick up the chips left when the iceman cut the ice. Some of the children might follow him for several stops. The icemen worked six days a week. Sunday morning was spent back at the barn greasing the wagon wheels, repairing the harness, and sharing a meal with the rest of the crew.

Shrinkage was a major problem for the iceman when delivering to the customer. There wasn't any time for idle chatter with the customers. To save time on larger routes, the company would make arrangements to bring him another load of ice, saving him a trip back to the icehouse. Many of the icemen worked full time for the company, particularly with the firms that were in the fuel oil business. Meanwhile, farmers who had a small body of water on their property were in the business for the extra income. The largest ice harvesting operation in Western Massachusetts was in Southwick. A January, l9l2 issue of Western New England magazine claimed that the Southwick operation had the largest icehouses in the United States. There were five icehouses at the ponds, each about two acres, with a combined capacity of 225,000 tons of ice. Ice harvesting in Southwick started in the l874 when the Knickerbocker Ice Company of New York cut ice for the first time in Southwick. They had been cutting ice on the Hudson River, but were forced to look for another source due to pollution problems.

The Berkshire Ice Company took over the business in l879, building five icehouses. The first ice house was the Hygienic. The second was the Crystal. Later the Berkshire was built on the South Pond, while the Congamond and the Walker were built further north, on North Pond. Some of the houses held 60,000 pounds, the others 40,000 tons. The company employed up to 700 men in the ice-harvesting season. A large number were Italian and Swedish immigrants, along with a number of farmers from the area. Some men from other towns came to Southwick during the season, boarding with relatives. Jobs were available to anyone who wanted to work.

Southwick also had excellent rail facilities for transporting ice in the summer time, another plus for the town. Congamond ice was soon in great demand, providing steady work in the summer months shipping ice by rail to New Haven, Bridgeport, and New York City. At its peak the company was shipping 60 to 90 railcars a day, six days a week during July and August. Total dollar volume reached a million dollars in some years. Property taxes were another benefit for Southwick, along with the wages for employees.

Ice harvesting in Springfield was a major business. A large number of companies were involved in the business, starting in the l870s. A number of ponds were in use, the largest on Watershops Pond, which at the time was owned by the Armory. In l878 the Springfield Ice Company, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, George A. Flagg, J. Shea, and J. Young were all harvesting ice on the pond. The Armory would divide the pond into sections, and request bids from interested firms. In later years the Springfield Ice Company was the sole firm harvesting on the pond. They owned four large icehouses located in strategic sections of the pond. They also had two large stables for their horses, and a full time blacksmith. Our family lived a short distance from the pond. We used to watch them cutting ice on weekends while ice-skating. They also supplied ice to our neighborhood.

Ice was also harvested on the Mill Pond in Sixteen Acres, Loom Pond, and Van Horn Reservoir. Liberty Ice Company acquired by Peter Hogan in l9l4, cut ice on the Chicopee Reservoir on Liberty Street, and later on Hogan Pond, and the pond near Bircham Bend in Indian Orchard. The Massasoit Ice Company owned by the Noonan family, harvested ice on Watershops Pond. A Westfield firm harvested ice on "Still Pond" located on the north side of Westfield. Peter Crombie of Enfield, Connecticut, was one of several firms cutting ice on the Connecticut River. In the late l800s, J.W. Davis was harvesting ice on the Connecticut River in Holyoke. He owned two icehouses, a half-mile north of the city hall. The ice was cut about 250 feet from the shore. He also harvested ice on Ashley Pond before it became a city reservoir. Two dealers were also harvesting ice on the opposite side of the river.

The Ramapogue Ice Company of West Springfield had a plant on Park Street, located on the banks of the Agawam River, where the company started manufacturing artificial ice in November l907. They used water from the Agawam River for the power required to operate the plant. They contracted with the De La Vegne Company to supply ammonia and brine for making ice. The water used for manufacturing ice came from the Bear Hole Reservoir owned by the Town of West Springfield. This eliminated the problems associated with working outdoors in the winter and improved the purity of the ice.

East Longmeadow was supplied with ice, harvested at Redstone Lake. The icehouse was located on the west corner of the original lake. The harvesting started in 1917 by Edward Christianson. Ice was also harvested on the pond located at Turner Park. Shaker Pond later renamed Crescent Lake, just over the line from East Longmeadow, in Enfield, Connecticut, was also a source of ice. Cooley's store in the center of East Longmeadow had an icehouse located in the rear of then store, next to the barn.

Hampden reportedly had several farms and millponds where ice was harvested. One, Lawcowaic Mill Pond, was noted for the purity of its ice. Ice harvesting in Ludlow was big business as well. The primary sources were Haviland Pond, Chapin and Harris Ponds. The Richard brothers began selling ice around 1900. Three icehouses were located on Chapin Pond, one owned by Ernest Labosiere, a second by Frank Gibb, and a third by the Richard brothers.

Just about every home had an icebox. It was an insulated wooden cabinet, in which milk, butter, fruit, vegetables and other perishable goods were stored in the lower section. The top section had a hinged lid, opened from the top for storing the ice. A container was placed under the icebox to catch the water when the ice melted. A family member had the duty to empty the container before going to bed. Failure to do so meant a pool of water greeted the first one up in the morning.

Ice harvesting came to an end in the mid-1930s, with the increased use of the refrigerator. My parents purchased one in 1938. Gone was the husky iceman hauling a block of ice on his shoulder. Many of the icehouses were destroyed by fire, or torn down. Most of the iceboxes went to the dump. Those who saved their icebox now have a collector's item.

"With special thanks to Larry Gormally and the Springfield Journal"