GRANVILLE, MASS. – Nothing beats the winter blues more than a five-foot saw, giant tongs, a sharpened pick, and a pond full of ice to work. The Noble & Cooley Center in Granville re-created a 19th century ice harvest on Sunday, February 8, which worked the muscles and expanded the mind.
In the shadow of the former Noble & Cooley Drum Factory, Dennis Picard, who sported a period outfit complete with wool cap and wool vest, stood on Cooley Pond and rhythmically cut through the 18-inch thick ice with a curved saw.
Picard, the Director of Storrowton Village Museum in West Springfield, gives lectures and demonstration at various museums and to environmental groups throughout the area on the bygone trade of harvesting ice.
“It was one of the few ways that young people could make money in the winter time,” said Picard, who calls himself an ice historian. “There wasn’t a lot of chores to do on the farm. Your cows weren’t milking until the spring time. It was something that an 18-year-old, 19-year-old could get on and get some spending money, otherwise, he just wouldn’t have.”
PIcard started cutting 13-years ago when he attended a lecture on the ice trade. He then took a course sponsored by the New York Folklore Society. According to Picard, in its heyday, the ice business was the eight or ninth largest business in the United States.
“As I usually say, everyone remembers the blacksmith that they had in their family, but they don’t remember the two ice men,” said Picard. “There were more ice involved jobs than there were of many, many, many other trades. It was very common, but it’s just gone. There isn’t a remnant of it left.”
Just about ever home in America had an ice box that relied on ice delivery a few times a week to prevent food spoilage. Between the First and Second World Wars, according to Picard, the trade died.
General Electric of Massachusetts invented a compressor that could run inexpensively on available house current. The machine took up less space in the home and it also replaced the industrial compressed-gas operations that made the ice.
Before the invention of home refrigeration, a fifty pound block of ice delivered in the middle of the summer could last a few days. Picard said consumers paid between 35-50 cents for the blocks, a high price considering the wages of the time.
Picard pointed out that a “bad piece of history” has been passed on for generations that involved the ice operations on Lake Congamond in Southwick and Suffield, Conn. It was said that the lake produced more ice than any other place in North America.
“It all came out of, basically, a sales brochure that was produced in the early-20th Century; so about a hundred years ago,” said Picard. “The Congamonds was a very large area for ice production because it’s a very large body of water. But wasn’t anything near they were cutting on the Hudson River (New York) or the Great Lakes or the Kennebec River (Maine) or even the Connecticut River. But it was a large production for that one spot. It’s just not relative to the industry.”
Besides the labor he provided for afternoon, Picard recruited the public to step up to long saw that had jagged teeth the length of it. With a rectangle opening cut in the ice, Picard instructed the volunteer to find a rhythm as the person cut through the solid block.
With little effort, the sharpened blade cut straight and deep. Within a few minutes, and all sides cut, the oversized ice cube bobbed in the dark waters. Picard grabbed a pair of iron tongs, stood over the opening, and placed the tongs on either side of the block.
He dunked the block below the water’s surface and used the returned force to easily extract the ice crop, carried it over to a dozen or so pieces that sat off to the side, and with one, quick motion, plopped the block down as it slid into place with the others.
Christine Cook of Suffield, who took part in the harvest, heard stories from her father, Joe Phillips, of how he witnessed the ice harvests during his youth on the family farm on Prospect Street in Suffield.
“He remembers them brining the ice blocks up with a horse into the barn filled with saw dust,” said Cook. “He just thought it was amazing. I remember him telling the stories and I love listening to the old stories of farming and how he seen the Depression.”
Her father, soon to turn 85-years-old, still works and an acre or two of his 16-acre farm by hand.
As the late-noon sun began to dip below the horizon, Picard still worked the giant saw and provided his listeners a slim portal back to a time when men armed with axes and picks chopped through the ice on windswept lakes and ponds throughout New England.
The event was sponsored by The Noble & Cooley Center for Historic Preservation in collaboration with the Suffield Land Conservancy and the Suffield Historical Society.