Harvesting the Ice

Harvesting the Ice

In today’s world, with freezers and automatic ice cube makers, it is hard to understand a time when the ice harvest was a main event. Refrigeration by means of natural ice was employed for thousands of years.

The ice collecting/storage business developed in the US early in the 19th century. Icemen spent December through February cutting ice to be used throughout the summer. Refrigeration grew into a giant industry nationally in the 1930’s but as late as the early 1950’s Danville still had icemen.

The 1857 Intelligencer reported that the citizens of Danville were busy filling their icehouses with clear thick ice from the Susquehanna River. In 1881, Horace Blue was operating a business cutting ice from the river and selling it. Of course there were those mild winters when ice had to be shipped in from the Poconos.

The job of cutting a 100 lb block of ice while standing on the rim of an open hole took a lot of skill. An ice boat would break up the frozen crust and push the debris away allowing a smooth clear layer to develop. At cutting time the snow was removed by horse drawn plows with grooved edges that scored the ice into three feet rows. The men sawed the ice into squares. Horse drawn wagons carried the ice off from the dams and river. This could be dangerous, in 1883 a team of horses broke through the ice and it took over an hour to rescue them.

In 1904, J.A. Lawrence installed a steam powered elevator at the dam at Mahoning Creek to raise the ice from the dam to the Cinder Tip. This is the site of the Continental Fire Company.

In addition to homes, hotels, restaurants and other businesses had to buy ice. In 1914, Lawrence cut 400 tons of ice a day to be used through the summer.

The icehouse floor was cover with 10 inches of sawdust to provide insulation. After the blocks of ice were place in the ice house, sawdust was spread around the blocks to add more insulation.

By the late 1920’s most of the ice cutting was done on local dams and ponds instead of the river; however when a drought occurred, the iceman had to resort to the river for his supply.  In a good year, J.A. Lawrence cut and stored 3,500 tons of ice in 2 storage buildings. Approximately 30 men were employed at the dam cutting, lifting and storing the ice.

On Feb 15, 1932 the Dewart Milk Company installed an ice making plant on Spring Street. The ice manufacturing plant had a daily capacity of 15 to 20 tons and the water was filtered and tested. In March of that year, not a pound of ice was harvested in the area due to an unusually mild winter. J.A. Lawrence made an agreement with Dewart Milk Company’s ice plant to supply Danville with ice. This was the first time Danville depended upon artificial ice. On March 5, 1931 the Morning News reported the records of the Lawrence Ice Company showed that over 25 years, 1902 to 1927 there wasn’t a season when the normal harvest of 3,500 tons of ice was not cut locally. From 1928-1932 only one full crop was harvested.

J.A. Lawrence was appointed post master in February 1931 and turned his business over to his son. In addition to the Lawrences, other ice dealers in Danville included A.M. Peters, William Shepperson, A. Delcamp (Economy Ice Co.), J.L. Kline and J. Milton Ammerman.

The icemen used a horse and wagon to deliver ice to their customers. A 15 inch ice tongs would span the 45 inch block of ice and was used as a marker for size.  The ice was chopped off with an ice pick and using the tongs hoisted on the burlap covered shoulder or hip of the iceman. A yellow card placed in the customer’s window would tell the iceman that ice was needed and the amount. The ice boxes did not keep ice cream or frozen foods like the refrigerators of today and the drip pan underneath had to be emptied every day. The iceboxes of those days are now being refinished and used as storage.

Source: January 1992 Danville Bicentennial Gazette.

(Photo is at Lawrence’s Dam)