Great Lakes ice harvesting

Ice Harvesting along Kingston's shores and the Great Lakes

Breaking the Ice: Ice Harvesting on the Great Lakes
16 Feb 2022

Nowadays, we take refrigeration for granted, but have you ever wondered how food and drink were stored in the past? Before the age of fridges and freezers, ice was a hot commodity! It is easy to overlook, but so many industries rely on staying cold in order to operate. Think about what it takes to transport fruit, vegetables, and meat; what is needed to run butcher shops, ice cream stores, and breweries; not to mention what it takes to store personal groceries and staying cool during the summer - all of these things would have been impossible without ice. That is why ice harvesting was such an important industry. This was a practice where ice was cut from frozen lakes and rivers during the winter and stored during the summer months. Let us take a look at the history of ice harvesting in the Great Lakes region to see why staying cool was such a complex and backbreaking process.


1982 0002 0251Image: 1982.0002.0209 Caption: Photo from Museum archives, Calvin Collection. Ice harvesters from Garden Island.

Cool Companies


We typically think of the winter as a time when harvesting is in a lull, but for ice cutters, this frozen window was a period of intense seasonal work. This was especially true for the ice business centered on Garden Island, a small land mass just North of Wolfe Island. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Garden Island was home to the Calvin Company, a lucrative timber and shipping empire. While the Calvin Company’s main enterprise was rafting timber, it sought many ancillary business opportunities in order to retain its workforce during the winter months. Ice harvesting was one of these endeavors, as Garden Island raftmen would work on the ice during their off-season, taking full advantage of the many opportunities offered by the lake.

However, Garden Island ice had some steep competition! Lake Simcoe was especially notable for having ice with the best reputation, it was considered to be the most clean and pure of the ice in the region. For this reason, James Fairhead founded Springwater Ice Company in 1876, which would eventually become the Lake Simcoe Ice and Fuel Company. Its largest competitor was Belle Ewart Ice Company, founded in 1891 by Elias Chapman. The ice business on Garden Island, as well as the larger Lake Simcoe companies demonstrate how lucrative the ice harvesting business was, as many different sectors (from commercial to domestic) had a dire need for ice.


The Harvest

1982 0019 0267Image: 1982.0002.0210 Photo from Museum archives, Calvin Collection. Workers float ice cakes through channels cut into the lake.

In the Great Lakes region, there was generally a two week stretch in January or February when ice was ripe for harvest. Ice harvesters had to wait until the ice was around 14-16 inches thick before they could safely begin their work, since the ice needed to be strong enough to support the weight of the workers and their equipment. Once the ice was ready, ice cutters used horse drawn ice plows to section off the ice into long strips. Individual ice cutters would then go in with handsaws to break these long strips up into smaller sections. Removing the first block was always the most difficult, but once the workers had opened up the ice they formed a channel which helped them speed up the pace of the harvest.

To be delivered down river, ice was either towed by horse drawn sleighs, o . Once it was on the shore, ice was stored in icehouses, structures made of wood and painted white to reflect the sun. Ice-houses were insulated in sawdust which prevented the ice from melting, and with the proper ventilation and drainage these houses could keep ice cold even as long as the following winter!

Ice harvesting could be dangerous work. Workers used specialized tools like hooks, ice picks, and snow scrapers in order to extract the ice. It was not uncommon for people to be injured by ice hauling picks and metal tongs, and some even lost fingers to ice saws. The biggest danger, however, was the ever present threat of falling into the freezing water. Clayton Miller, an ice harvester from Minnesota, is even quoted as saying he fell into the water around 10 times! It was also dangerous work for the horses who pulled ice plows and sleighs, on rare occasions horses could fall through the ice, and though every effort was made to save them it was not always possible.

1982 0002 0251Image: 1982.0002.0251 Photo from Museum archives, Calvin Collection. Ice cutters posing on the ice.

Procuring ice was once a lucrative business with an entire industry surrounding it, but this system would not last the test of time against the development of new technologies. With modern refrigerators becoming more and more commonplace and the increasing pollution of the Great Lakes, the need for ice harvesting melted away. So, the next time you pull out an ice tray from your freezer, think about the long history and obsolete industry behind that little cube.




Alexander StoringBy Zoe Mack

Research and Collections Assistant, Winter 2022


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