Ice Harvesting in Western MA

Five Ways to Learn about the History of Ice Harvesting in Western MA

Ice Harvesting, Massachusetts, early 1850s. [Source: Gleason's Drawing Room Companion, 1852, p.37]

Ice harvesting is an industry of the past, and one whose roots lie only in cold climates – like western Massachusetts! Done both as a necessity in early New England and as a profitable industry more recently, ice harvesting plays an important role in local history. Over the course of the next few weeks, numerous opportunities exist for families to learn about and take part in ice harvesting!

In the days of western Massachusetts past, when refrigerators weren’t standard kitchen equipment, ice was quite a luxury during the summer. In order to have ice after the spring thaw began, early New Englanders would have to harvest and strategically store ice from local lakes and ponds. Kept in the proper conditions (in the dark, and surrounded by insulation – usually sawdust), the harvested ice would last much longer than the cold weather did.

In addition to providing cool comfort at home during a New England summer, Massachusetts’ past ice harvesting industries sent locally frozen chunks all over the world. Begun in 1844 by Frederic Tudor, the local ice industry shipped ice first to London, then to warmer climates all over the world where, before electric refrigeration, ice was essentially unheard of. By the early 20th century, ice was one of America’s biggest crops (measured by weight).

Part of a rich history of economic pursuits driven by available natural resources, ice harvesting plays an important role in the history of communities all over western Massachusetts. Throughout the upcoming month, local historical societies and museums offer families opportunities to learn – in some cases, experientially – about the process of ice harvesting. 

The Winter Harvest: Ice Cutting on Sheffield Lakes and Rivers

At the Sheffield Historical Society, families can visit an ongoing exhibit, The Winter Harvest: Ice Cutting on Sheffield Lakes and Rivers, that chronicles the pursuit of ice. Filled with tools, photographs, information on ice cutting and storage, and first-hand accounts from harvest participants, the exhibit allows visitors to examine ice harvesting within its proper historical context. In viewing photographs and reading accounts from the ice harvesters themselves, families will be able to create an accurate image in their minds of what an ice harvest a century (or so) ago would have looked like. The exhibit is open to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am-3pm through February 22nd, and is located at the historical society’s Old Stone Store at 159 Main Street.

7th Annual Ice Harvest

The Noble and Cooley Center for Historic Preservation in Granville offers families a chance to participate in their very own ice harvest on Saturday, February 7th at their 7th Annual Ice Harvest. Lead by Storrowton Village director Dennis Picard, the event will allow visitors to walk out onto the center’s pond and to try out harvesting tools for themselves – making for a truly experiential learning experience! Additionally, inside the NCCHP museum a video on ice harvesting in New England will be shown on a loop, and tours of the museum focused specifically on Yankee ingenuity will be offered. In addition to offering an opportunity for community-based learning, the center’s mission for the day is to rekindle the community spirit common amongst agrarian and industrial communities in early New England. The harvest will take place from 12noon-3pm.

Historical Ice Harvest

For the second year in a row, Easthampton’s Winterfest will feature ice harvesting on the town’s Nashawannuck Pond on Saturday, February 14th from 12noon-3pm. Also lead by historian Dennis Picard, the event will showcase ice harvesting tools, and will allow families to see demonstrations of the ice harvesting process. Parking is available on Payson Avenue, and the event is free.

Historic Ice House

At Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, MA, families can explore the ins and outs of harvested ice storage by visiting a 19th century ice house. The existing ice house was built in 1894, but the village had an ice house as long ago as 1844, and used the cold storage space to preserve food – especially dairy. Designed to utilize the natural insulation provided by the earth, the building allows warm air to escape out of a cupola in its roof, while allowing ice-cooled air to flow over stored food. Images and an excerpt from the village’s manifesto are available for further learning online. Currently closed for the season, Hancock Shaker Village is open to visitors from April-October.

Southwick Historical Society

Families can further their learning about the local ice harvesting industry by utilizing an online resource made available by the Southwick Historical Society. Filled with photographs an dense information, the web page chronicles the rise and fall of booming ice harvesting industries in Southwick where, thanks to a nearby railroad, it was quite easy to harvest and transport ice straight to New York City.

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