Ice Harvesting

Ice harvesting, from the website for Boy Scout Camp Minsi, located at the site of a former ice company on Stillwater Lake in the Poconos, at:

Editor’s Note: This is a column on area watersheds by Blyden Potts and guest columnists to spread awareness of the area’s tributaries and the efforts of area volunteers to keep them clean.


In the heat of summer, we look for ways to chill. With air conditioning and refrigeration technology, it is easy to take our chill for granted. Stores, workplaces, homes and cars are air conditioned. Convenience stores have coolers of chilled drinks and frozen treats. Ice cream is easy to come by. There are cold drinks in your fridge and ice cubes in your freezer, or even available from an ice dispenser in the freezer door. Few of these luxuries existed before the mid-20th century, virtually none of them more than a century ago. People had to find their chill in other ways.

One way of cooling off was swimming or wading. People also chilled beverages and other items by immersing them, in sealed containers, in water. Mountain streams and springs are especially excellent for this purpose. Old farms often had a springhouse, which not only protected the water source from contamination, but was used to keep things cold by immersion.

Caves are another option. Insulated by rock, most caves have a very stable temperature. In our region, this is often in the range of 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit. Comparatively warm in winter and refreshingly cool in summer.

Ice caves go one better. They form ice in the winter or spring, depending on the type of cave, and retain it through much or all of the summer, providing a natural refrigerator and warm-weather source of ice. There is a famous one at Coudersport and one at Trough Creek State Park.

Karst topography like ours here in the Cumberland Valley is rich in caves and springs, but even here, not everyone has access to a cave, a spring, or even a stream. Before refrigeration technology, people relied heavily on canned foods and pickling, preserving meats with salt and/or by smoking them. They also used iceboxes. An icebox is an insulated box, like a small refrigerator, with at least two compartments. One holds food or other

items one wants kept cold. The other holds a block of ice, which provides the chill. It is the same idea as the ice chest or cooler you bring camping or tailgating, but with the ice in its own space.

Back in the day, chilled treats like ice cream or iced tea generally also required ice. It did not come from a machine. Ice was harvested in winter from frozen lakes. Men sawed ice into blocks on the lake and pulled them out with iron tongs. Blocks were hauled on horse-drawn sleds to ice houses, where it was stored, insulated in sawdust, until shipped to market. Much of the market was cities like New York and Philadelphia.

If the idea of consuming lake ice raises health concerns in your mind, imagine the water quality of the time; or the shipping process and the sanitation standards of that era. I guess they counted on freezing temperatures to kill any pathogens.

For earlier generations, keeping things chill could be a lot of work. Imagine how special iced tea, lemonade and ice cream must have been in summers before refrigerators. Yet they may have been happy to have summer ice as they looked back to even earlier generations who lacked that convenience. In many ways, we live in greater luxury than kings of yore. Something to think about the next time one is at the ice cream stand or getting ice from our ice dispenser, wiping condensation from a frosty glass of cold drink, or adjusting the settings on the air conditioner.

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