The recent article about ice harvesting in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, brought back memories of an ice harvest in nearby Heuvelton, New York—a similar event with a similar goal. In each case, thick ice on an outdoor pond was cut into squares, loaded on a wagon and pulled by horse to an ice house, where it would help Amish families meet refrigeration needs.
But there were some interesting differences. In Mt. Vernon, it was a “frolic”, a work event that brought at least a dozen men from neighboring farms together to cut and stack blocks of ice. Women came along to provide hot beverages and a cooked meal.
Reporting on the event, Arthur Bolduc noted that there was a “near carnival atmosphere,” with the men competing to see who could slide the blocks of ice the farthest and “young ladies bringing hot drinks and donuts.” The men used chain saws and stacked the blocks in refrigerated truck bodies or ice houses with thick Styrofoam walls. Bolduc notes that the “little guys really got into it,” already practicing for the day they’d be the ice harvesters.
Ice harvests in the Swartzentruber community in New York’s North Country are less frolic and more family affair, though one or two older boys may come to help out a neighbor. Each farm has its own ice house—wooden structures or a walled off corner next to the milk house. The ice is packed in a mixture of sawdust and snow that will keep the blocks insulated. One farmer told me that he’d likely have ice all the way through the next August.
The Swartzentrubers don’t use chain saws, so the ice must be cut with hand saws, broken off with picks, and hefted out of the water with large pincers. It’s cold, and so the men go out with thermoses of coffee. They may have donuts or fried pies to eat, but only when they take a quick break from their work. Young girls may take a new thermos out to the ice harvesters, but they’re likely to run back home as soon as it has been delivered!
I walked out to see the harvest with the aunt and wife of the fellow doing the harvest. He was aided by several neighbor boys—and would, in turn, help their fathers do their own harvest. Because he had no “big boys” to send, he would lend a hand himself.
“Little guys” don’t play a big role—or any at all—in a Swartzentruber ice harvest. They have to be big enough to work to take part. Women, except when they’re accompanying a curious English friend, stay in the house where it’s warm. They have their own chores to do! “That’s men’s work,” the aunt said. “Let’s get warm!”