One Sunday each February, the Thompson Ice House Museum in South Bristol, Maine, gives visitors a chance to step back in time and actively participate in the art of ice harvesting. This year the annual event fell on Valentine’s Day and it was picture perfect. The sky was clear and blue and it reached a high of six degrees – perfect ice harvesting conditions. I was excited to see the operation because I have long been fascinated with the ingenuity humans have demonstrated over the years to solve the challenges of everyday life before the advent of electric technologies. The Thompson family began laying up ice back in 1826 for their farm’s needs but eventually began providing ice for neighboring farms and many of the local fisherman. Before modern refrigeration Maine ice was harvested by the ton and traveled in trains all over the country and in ships all over the world. Since the museum opened in 1990, the laborious task of cutting, breaking, floating, lifting, and stacking an ice house full has been relegated to a once a year, participatory event, complete with hot drinks, baked beans and whoopie pies (more on these in a later post!).
A pair of regulars drag the powered saw along a prescribed groove to make the initial cut. (The powered saw was a 1900’s improvement).
Individual 2 x 3 foot blocks are cut by hand. Both Amber and I got in on it! Once we mastered holding the saw at the most efficient angle and found a rhythm it went pretty fast. I could have done that all day but apparently it is customary to let others have a turn…apparently.
The blocks are chipped apart and set adrift to be gaffed and guided towards the lift. An ingenious cradle and pulley system lifts the ice from the water to the delivery ramp. The ramp can be continuously elevated to deliver blocks to the increasingly taller stack of ice. In times past the lift was operated by two horses. Today, the lift tender signaled a man in a truck tied to the lift cable – apparently the two Clydesdales that traditionally handle the job were not available.
The ice careens down a ramp and shoots across the already stacked ice. Tenders attempt to temper the block’s speed and direct it towards it’s destined place.
Chips and chunks fly as the 250 pound blocks crash together but the tenders manage to buck them into their slot – creating layer upon layer of ice. Blocks would have provided cold for ice boxes like the one on display at the museum.
Although the icebox was used in rural areas as late as the 1950’s, it had been replaced by the Freon equipped refrigerator in most homes by the 1930’s. Getting to be part of the tradition for a day was a fantastic experience! I not only learned all about the process first hand, but I was truly inspired! I have a whole catalog in my head of things I am going to have in my someday, off the grid, self-sustaining, homestead. After seeing this process, my catalog now includes an epic ice house and a real old-fashioned ice box in the kitchen! The museum has a sister event every July when the door to the ice house is opened and the stored ice is used to make ice cream. It must be great for locals who can be here for both events and reap the fruits of their frigid February labors on a hot July day!
The sky was so clear that day we decided to take a quick trip to Pemaquid Point Light House, just a few miles away. It was still cold and there was a good breeze blowing too. The pictures almost speak for themselves but there is just no way to truly capture with pictures the experience of the Atlantic coast on a frigid, crystal clear, windy, day!