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
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
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
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
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.
special thanks to Larry Gormally and the Springfield Journal"