Ice Harvesting in New York’s North Country

Karen Johnson-Weiner follows up last month’s Ohio ice harvest post with a look at how the practice differs among the Swartzentruber Amish in upstate New York.

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.

wooden-ice-house

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!

ice-harvest-heuvelton-new-york

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!”

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    4 Comments

    1. Anne

      Ed's Ice House

      When our son Ed decided to build his ice house, it seemed to us as if it was one important step for him to prove to his community that he could “do” this new life. His ice house went in a year after he built his house and he seemed equally proud of both. We visited him about 9 months after he built it and filled it with ice. When he described how they cut the ice and pulled it out of the frozen lake, we thought this was (once again) something we might have been better NOT to hear about! As a mom (all you moms out there will understand) it’s easy to imagine the worst; someone falls through the opening and is lost under the ice. I’ve slowly gotten used to the idea, but must admit it was a source of anxiety for me for the first couple years.

      I don’t think they plan this day as a frolic, but I’ll ask him about it in the next letter. My guess is that it’s just too cold to expect any of the women/girls to get out to help. I think they usually do this in late January, and in NW Minnesota the temps are usually well below zero, with extreme wind chills due to the usual high winds.

      1. Ice cutting hazards

        We’ve done 3 or 4 posts on this topic, and I still haven’t figured out how they keep from falling in…seems like it would happen (and I guess, tragically, it sometimes does: https://amishamerica.com/amish-teen-drowns-cutting-ice/ ).

        I guess you make sure the ice is thick enough and have something grippy on your shoes as noted in the Ohio article. I’d love to lend a hand at one of these, though I’m halfway serious when I say I might put on a lifevest. Can’t imagine the shock your body must endure falling into such frigid water.

    2. Andy White

      This is so very interesting

      Never a dull moment Eric! This really looks like fun! I can imagine why it was a festive time. Thanks again for unexpected blessings here on Amish America!

      1. Andy thank you, and I have to hand off your thanks straight to Karen. I have so much enjoyed the stories and insights into Amish life in NY and in general that she’s been sharing here.

        This ice harvesting does seem like a nice time, doesn’t it? It’s more appealing to me because I don’t do nearly as much outdoor work as I’d like to. That and the fried pies and donuts must be the cherry on top to what is no doubt a chilly but rewarding work day.