Down T'Home

Time to cut the ice

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt | Feb 05, 2018

For tens of thousands of years, man didn't know what a refrigerator was.

Yet they managed to eat well and survive until refrigeration came in a little more than a hundred years ago. Indeed, ice boxes didn't even become a piece of household furniture until about 1900. I say "piece of furniture" because they were mostly made from oak or cherry and had solid brass hinges and handles. Really, quite a lovely piece of furniture indeed. And, in the cities, The "Ice Man Cometh" three times week, in a horse-drawn cart, to bring you a goodly size block of ice for your ice box.

On the farm up on Tucker Ridge, in the late '30s, early '40s, our ice box sat on the landing in the woodshed/granary, just outside the cook room (kitchen). It was a three-door oak chest, many of which are still around today as they were so sturdy. In the top there was a galvanized compartment to drop the ice block into and, like refrigerators today, the water drained to a pan in the bottom. But, unlike in the cities, no ice man cameth.

Our ice came from small "ice houses" on the farms, a small, square wooden building just large enough to hold a winter's supply of ice. Actually, by the time we grandkids were living on the farm, the ice box was seldom used.

In a book on "Maine Place Names," listing cities and towns by name with an explanation of how the names had been chosen, they listed Tucker Ridge for some unknown reason — it's a road, not a town, one of two roads that make up Webster Plantation. But they listed it thus: "Tucker Ridge: named for the family that used to have barn dances there."

Years before us kids, come Saturday nights, Grampa Roy would play the fiddle and Grammie Mable would play her pump organ. For a few extra dollars they made 5 gallons of ice cream and cookies. That's when they had an ice house.

Without using the ice box, things like milk, cream and butter were stored on shelves going down to the dirt-floored cellar, which was always cool. On the rare occasions they wanted ice, we could get it from the neighbors who did still keep an ice house.

Today, people who never had an ice house would wonder how you could keep ice from melting in the summer. Well, maybe a brief history of "cutting the ice" in Maine to get the ice in the ice box.

Maine's lakes and ponds always provided ice for the farms, harvested with simple hand tools that were used to first "rake" lines into the surface, to mark out blocks all of one size, easier to stack. The men then used a hand saw — a larger version of the handsaw for cutting logs for firewood, but with much bigger teeth. (There are a few farms that still do this and some are open to the public when they harvest.)

I went with Grampa Roy and Uncle Milo and the other men of the Ridge one time on a day of ice cutting. I never went again. Scairt me 'bout to death. They'd cut the long lines through the ice in strips and then into blocks, all the while standing on the edge of the cut lines. I went up next to Grampa and stood looking down at the toes of my boots on the edge of  that very dark open water, expecting the ice to let go under my feet any second. It didn't seem possible that the ice would hold us all up like that. I scurried back to the bank and played with Joe Dog until it was time to go back to the farm.

So why didn’t the ice melt in middle of summer? Once in the ice house — that had no windows — it was packed in sawdust. Now don't ask the physics of why the sawdust keeps the ice from melting because I haven't a clue. I only know it does. Indeed, I remember reading Henry David Thoreau’s account of ice lasting like this for 2 1/2 years.

In the early 1800s, ice became one of the 10 largest industries in the state. It was cut and shipped up and down the coast, to India, Asia — all over, until somebody figured out how to "make" ice. And by the 1930s, most city houses had a refrigerator. And today, most people feel they couldn't get along without an ice dispenser in the door of their 'fridge.

I can.

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award winning columnist, is a Maine native and a graduate of Belfast schools, now living in Morrill. Her columns appear in this paper every other week.

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