Photo from "Angelica, Our Kind of Town"


by Eric Sloane

Only fifty years ago, the cutting of natural ice in America was big business but today it has almost vanished. Gone are the huge icehouses, so cavernous that clouds formed inside them and rain fell.  Gone are the itinerant ice cutters, and forgotten their skills; the simple tools of their trade, have already become antique shop items.

The work itself demanded a variety of skills.  Where the ice was covered with snow, the first step was to scrape it off with a horse-drawn snow plane.  Next the area to be "harvested"--in the larger ponds, a huge square six hundred feet on a side--was surveyed and its four boundary lines marked out with a hand cutter.  Then came a cutter with two runners forty-four inches apart; one blade was a guide plane, the other a large-toothed edge which made a preliminary groove two inches deep.  This implement criss-crossed the ice, tracing a gridded pattern on the surface.  It was followed by another twin-bladed cutter that cut more deeply.  Finally came an all-iron ice plow, its blades adjustable to within four inches of the bottom of the ice.  The final cutting was done with hand tools--long bladed saws and long handled spades and fork bars.  Large sections of the six-hundred foot square were cut away, and the men rode them like rafts, dividing them into smaller pieces as they floated toward the icehouse.

Modern refrigeration killed the natural ice business, of course.  It spelled the doom of the family ice-house as well, but a few of them are left, and the pleasure of using one's own clear pond water for chilling a summer drink has not been entirely lost.  The horses that pulled the plows, planes, and cutters are, alas gone, but the men and boys who work the ponds know the thrill of striking a scored sheet of ice with a chisel that rings in the winter air and cuts clean and sharp.


Photo & Story From "Angelica, Our Kind of Town" , 1990 printed by Sun Publishing Company, Alfred; Written and compiled by Students of Angelica Central School.  "Natural Ice" by Eric Sloane, Excerpted from Aug. 1966 American Heritage.