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The winter harvest: ice for the summer

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson each had icehouses on their property. Ice was used to preserve food, cool drinks and make ice cream and other frozen desserts. It was harvested like a farm crop and stored in an underground pit often lined with stone or brick. Gravel at the bottom of the pit allowed the drainage of the inevitable melting ice. The wooden walls above ground were double walls with insulating material such as sawdust in between. They often had triple roofs to insulate from the hot summer sun. A large and well-built icehouse could keep ice until late in the summer and sometimes until the following winter.

By the late 19th century, large numbers of icehouses had been built along lakeshores and rivers. The ice was ready for harvesting when the water had frozen about 14 to 16 inches thick. First the snow was scraped from the ice and then a horse-drawn single or double bladed cutter, looking somewhat like a plow, was dragged across the ice in both directions, marking off uniform lines to form the blocks of ice. Those cuts only went a few inches deep, and they had to be finished off with an ice saw or an ice spud.

Editor’s note: For more information about the Michigan State University Museum, contact Val Roy Berryman at or 517-355-0322. — Jennifer Vincent

5 tons of floating ice

In this photo, the lake or pond is apparently shallow enough that the float can be moved down the channel by using a wooden pole to push it along. This float is marked off to make three cakes wide by 12 to 14 cakes long. At the end of this channel, the individual blocks of ice, each weighing about 300 pounds, would have been cut up with handsaws, or more likely, would have been split off using ice spuds.

Sawing Ice Works Up a Sweat

Photos taken January 1957 by a Detroit news photographer show that the natural ice industry was still active in Michiganat that late date. The location is not identified on the photos. The first photograph shows the use of hand-operated ice saws, following the marked-off lines, to begin cutting an initial open channel through which huge floats of ice would later be moved.

Out of the Lake and Into the IceHouse

When the icehouse was located right on the edge of a lake, pond or river, a jack grapple could be used to draw cakes of ice up an inclined wooden ramp by horse or steam power. Larger operations used elevator machinery to move the blocks of ice up to the various levels, as the icehouse was filled higher and higher inside. Small operations used this grapple by laying it on top of a large block of ice with the two iron points holding it in place. A horse, a pulley and a rope were attached to the ring at the front of the grapple and it was pulled up the ramp to an opening in the side of the icehouse. A horse and a grapple could also be used to pull large floats of ice on the lake. This one was used by the Bay Port Fish Co. of Bay Port, probably in the 1920s or earlier. It was purchased from the F. C. Mason Co., makers of agricultural implements in St. Johns. In a 1904 catalog, this tool cost $4.25.

Primary Tools of the Trade Shown here are three important tools of the ice industry. This handsaw has a 30-inch blade, and it could have been used to saw apart cakes of ice on the lake. However, its smaller size makes it more likely that it was used in the icehouse to separate blocks that had frozen together. The tool in the center is a large and heavy implement called a spud, or a splitting chisel. This one was used for harvesting ice in Lansing. It would have had a 5- or 6-foot-long wooden handle attached to it. A row of men, each with a spud, would place them into a groove cut in the ice, and they could break off a whole row of cakes of ice. As the connected row of cakes was pushed to the shore, other men would break off each individual cake of ice before it was pulled out of the water. The third tool is a hand-forged iron pike that would have been attached to a 12- to 16-foot-long pike pole. These were used to push or pull large floats or individual cakes of ice through the water.

An Essential Tool on the Ice Field

Jon Backus, a curatorial assistant at the MSU Museum, shows a typical large ice saw. A good sawyer took a long stroke using nearly the full 5-foot length of the saw blade. He could cut an inch or more at each stroke.

This article published in the March, 2011 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

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