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The Age of Wild Ice

A Look Back at Lake Champlain’s Ice-Harvesting Days

Harvesting ice in Burlington

As Basin Harbor Club hibernates through Vermont’s deliciously cold and snowy winter, we thought we’d devote a blog post to a little local history: back to a time when glazed-over Lake Champlain was a great seasonal quarry.

For decades, wintertime on Lake Champlain meant a brisk business in ice harvesting. After all, prior to the days of refrigeration, blocks of ice were used to keep food, milk, and other perishables from spoiling year-round in both private and commercial scales—and for ice cubes, of course. Once ice reached adequate thickness ice cutters would clear away overlying snow and saw out big blocks to be hauled by horse-and-wagon for storage in icehouses. Lake and river ice ended up keeping goods chilled on trains, preserving the fruits of farmers’ labors through steamy summers, and delivered to home iceboxes by “icemen.”

This was a major industry and an important part of the seasonal round in Lake Champlain (and elsewhere in the Northeast, which once exported ice as far away as the Caribbean, India and Australia). According to the “Adirondack Almanack,” some 5,000 ice cutters harvested their frozen booty from the lake in 1890. In 1922, the Standard Ice & Coal Co. hauled out some 15,000 tons of Lake Champlain ice. That impressive yield came in the waning days of large-scale ice harvesting, which shuffled off the scene as refrigeration came onboard by the middle of the 20th century.

Bob Beach Sr shared his memories of ice cutting days at Basin Harbor Club:

It was a backbreaking job. Tim Rivers, who used to work for A.P., and later bought the farm where the [Lake Champlain Maritime] Museum is, had a Model T Ford engine with a 48′ saw rigged up on the drive shaft. We usually waited until the ice was 18″ thick…then cut out beyond where the rave is. Tim would set the saw so it would cut down about 3″ less than the thickness of the ice. He would cut a square of 30 x 18 blocks…then we’d cut a channel back toward the harbor, where the trucks were. We a homemade loader which stuck down into the water and would load the blocks, which has been split off the square with sharp iron pointed poles.

Then the trucks were driven to the ice house which was where the old gas pumps used to be. It was about 20′ deep, and we’d slide the blocks down a chute, and pack them with sawdust. It was hard work and our greatest fear would be that the lake would not freeze over. One year it didn’t and we had to cut down by the Champlain Bridge.

Of course, in Summer it was a full time job for someone to bring out the ice, wash off the sawdust, run it thru a hand driven chopper and store it away. It was not unusual to have bits of sawdust in your drinks. After we finally got ice machines on lady remarked, “oh, I’m sorry–I always liked that wild ice“.

It’s amazing to gaze out on the frigid midwinter majesty of our mighty inland sea and recall its ice-harvesting heyday. You can almost see the hardy cutters boring into the ice to test its depth.

Next time you come stay with us here at Basin Harbor Club and you’re happily dozing off to a gorgeous (and ice-free) Lake Champlain vista, reflect a little on the history of the ice cutters. And don’t forget that the nearby Lake Champlain Maritime Museum is a fantastic place to verse yourself on regional heritage and inspire a little imaginary time travel. Meanwhile, we’ll see you in the spring!

Photo courtesy of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Photo taken in Burlington and was published in their book Images of America: Lake Champlain