Recalling Ice Farming Heyday on the Susquehanna

1/1/2011 2:00 PM

Lou Ann Good

LANCASTER, Pa. — In the days before electricity, harvesting blocks of ice from the Susquehanna River was big business. Few people are aware of the important role ice harvesting played in Lancaster County. Perhaps no one is as well versed in its history as Lynn Smoker, a former high school history teacher who enjoys sharing his knowledge of local history.

Smoker calls himself a "river rat" who grew up spending most of his waking moments on the river, but by the time he was born, refrigeration had replaced the need for ice harvesting. The peak of the ice industry was in the 1880s. Before that, farmers mostly used axes to chop the ice from ponds and streams that wound through their fields. They stacked the ice in barns, tobacco sheds and springhouses for later use or shared some with neighbors. At larger streams and on the Susquehanna River, many men gathered to harvest the ice after it had frozen to about a six-inch depth.

Smoker has an extensive collection of the equipment used to cut, drill and harvest ice starting in the 1800s through 1950.

According to him, ice on the Susquehanna River was tested and needed to be at least three inches thick to be considered safe for walking on it. If snow had fallen on top of the ice, the snow needed to be removed before it could be harvested. Horses were fitted with special shoes to walk on the ice and pull a snow plow to remove the snow from the ice surface.

To measure the ice thickness, holes were drilled about one-and-a-half-inches wide and a stick with a lip was used to grab the edge of the bottom of the ice for accurate measurement.

Workers then created a field by using surveying equipment to mark squares. Horses pulled an ice plow in a north to south and east to west direction to score the ice to about a two-inch depth from the bottom. A hand saw was used to cut the final two inches to keep the ice from breaking unevenly. The ice was pushed through a channel to an ice house. Often the ice blocks were pushed up a conveyor belt run by steam power into the ice house where it was lifted with huge tongs about two to three feet in length. Usually at least two men were needed to lift the 200- to 300-pound blocks.

The riverside town of Columbia, Pa., stored about 2,400 tons in its ice house, which was enough to meet the needs of local residents. The ice house had a layer of sawdust on the bottom and several inches around the perimeter to help insulate the ice. About an inch of sawdust was placed between each block to keep blocks from freezing together. Packing the sawdust between the blocks was labor intensive with laborers often working 10-hour days. Farmers were often happy to work for the ice houses and earn a bit of money during the winter months when farm work was minimal.

If the ice was stored properly, it usually lasted from February through October. During the years when winter temperatures did not maintain freezing degrees, ice had to be purchased from New York or other northern states, which more than tripled the cost of ice. According to Smoker, a block of ice cost 80 cents in the 1850s, which was when the average annual income was $400. Most people needed to spend one-tenth of their income to purchase ice to keep milk and meat from spoiling. For that reason, only the wealthy could afford ice boxes. Other people needed to daily buy items that needed refrigeration at a market.

An ice man delivered ice to businesses and private residents. He carried keys to open businesses and even private homes where he placed the ice into ice boxes or designated areas. Crushed ice placed in burlap bags was delivered to marketplaces where it was used to keep fish and meat fresh.

Some customers purchased tickets in books ahead of time and paid for the ice by tearing off a ticket and giving it to the ice man. Other customers bought on credit by having a card punch each time they purchased ice and then paid the bill at the end of the month.

In 1908, the wealthy began to purchase refrigerators, but ice boxes continued to be used locally into the 1950s.

In 1980, Smoker started collecting memorabilia connected to the Susquehanna River. About six years ago that he became intrigued with the history of ice harvesting. Since then, he has amassed a large collection of items connected with ice farming. He loves sharing stories and displaying the items he has collected to interested groups.

For more information about a presentation by Smoker, call 717-419-8443 (cell) or 717-392-5739 (home).

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