, Newburyport, MA

February 25, 2013

The iceman cometh

As I See It
Robert 'Boots' Chouinard

---- — I grew up in Joppa, on the southern part of Prospect Street close to where it intersects with Bromfield Street. Just a short walking distance were two ice companies: Frost Ice Company, up from the corner of Bromfield and Chestnut Street, and Quills Ice Company was just down Bromfield Street a short way.

Quills ice houses were in Newbury. Heading down High Road just past Tendercrop’s Farm is Hay Street. Not far down the road is a pond. On the back part of the pond, just off the road a bit, was the ice house. Today there is no evidence of the ice house, but the pond is still used for ice skating as it was used when I was a kid.

Frost’s ice house was out on Graf Road. As I remember as a kid, there was brook that ran through the field. Sometimes during the fall, they would damn the brook creating quite the pond in the field. People in those days would go there to skate.

Back in the ’40s our winters were dependably true winters. About mid-winter both ponds would freeze; when the ice got to be about a foot thick, they would harvest it. The work was all done by hand, needing a lot of hands to perform the work. It would be a job that lasted a few days at best. My last two years of high school, I got hired. My older brother Lionel took me under his wing and we worked the ice together.

The ice would be cut by hand using a long saw blade that had a handle. The handle was held by a worker who would saw along a straight line. There were a few who did this and they were experienced at it. They would follow the lines and cut out large square sections. Starting from the shed, they would work their way to the back of the pond.

The ice chunks then had to be floated to the ice shed. Men would stand on the cut ice and with long poles push along to the shore. When it got there it, the large chunks would be cut down further into smaller blocks about a foot wide and 4 feet long. A conveyor contraption would pick up the ice slab in one compartment and move it along. The next section would pick up another. The contraption would move along picking up slabs of ice until they were carried to a staging.

The building that stored the ice was a large wooden structure with no windows, just a hollow shell with four walls. The front of the building was closed in but with openings about 4 to 5 feet wide. A staging something like painters would use was set up. There would be four to five guys or so working in each opening. It would begin on the ground level. The conveyor would deposit a slab of ice one at a time. The staging was built to be on a slant so the ice would slide down.

With my brother, we would stand by one opening. When it was time, a slab of ice would approach; I would stop it with the end of a pole. At one end of the pole was a metal pick pointed out straight. At the other end it has a curved pointed hook. I’d stop the piece, my brother would hook onto the end and then swing it onto the shed. I’d help by pushing. Another man would take it from us and slide it over to another man. He would place the slabs aligned in a nice line. This process would continue until the floor was completely covered. They would then spread sawdust and salt hay over the top. When completed the ramp would go up.

These steps would continue until the shed was full; then the openings would be boarded in. The ice would stay until the next harvest. The hay and sawdust kept the ice frozen.

Where the conveyor sat, a small wooden building that housed the boiler was located. The boiler was fired by coal that produced the steam powering the conveyor. The boiler was manned by a sole person all day long. Because of the small size of the building, only a couple of men could get inside at a time. If someone got terribly wet from floating in the ice cakes, he could go by the heat to dry off.

The entire operation of harvesting took a couple of days. It was often done on a weekend, making it possible for me to work those two days. A lot of people would stop to watch the procedure. On a clear, cold, crisp day, it made for a pretty picture. At the end of the winter, the brook would be undammed and the pond would be absorbed. Driving out Graf Road today, one would never know of the ice production or of the skating. It’s rather sad that era came to an end.


Robert “Boots” Chouinard lives in Salisbury.