Ice Harvesting in Northern New England
By Debra Cottrell

Today we mostly think of snow and ice as fun for skiing, skating, sledding and
other winter sports. However, in the not too distant past,
ice was considered the
first important agricultural product of the year being harvested in January and

Ice was used for cooling drinks, making ice cream and preserving foods. Many
of the founding fathers including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had
ice houses.

During the 18th century ice was limited primarily to the wealthy. George
Washington’s 1785 diary stated “Having put in the heavy frame into my Ice
House I began this day to Seal it with Boards, and to ram straw between these
boards and the wall.”

Natural Ice Harvesting

Harvesting natural ice became big business in New England during the 19th
century. The birth of America’s large scale commercial ice industry began in
New England in 1805. Frederick Tudor, a Boston merchant, created the first
natural ice business in the United States. He shipped ice harvested on a pond in
Lynn Massachusetts to the West Indies. Over the next thirty years Tudor made a
fortune shipping ice around the world to places like Charleston, New Orleans,
Cuba, Calcutta, South America, China and England. British records show that
Queen Victoria purchased some ice from Massachusetts in the 1840’s.

Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, one of Tudor’s ice harvesting foreman developed many
specialized tools such as plows and saws to improve the harvesting of ice. In
1858, the Tudor company expanded their harvesting operations to Milton, New
Hampshire.  Ice was harvested in the winter and stored in huge ice houses to
allow for year round distribution. During the summer months, special ice trains
carried, on the average, fifty cars a day from Milton. In 1880, the Wakefield, New
Hampshire area followed suit and opened the Independent and Driver’s Union
Ice companies.

Tons of Ice Sold in the 1800s

Statistics of the trade in 1879-80 state that Boston harvested 600,000 tons of ice
and that 381,000 tons were sold and consumed. The total consumption of ice in
the United States that year is estimated at 5,000,000 to 5,250,000 tons. By 1900,
over 10,000,000 tons of ice was used annually.

During this period, ice was primarily used to keep foods cool rather to be
consumed.  Restaurants, markets, dairies, breweries, meat packing
establishments, and hospitals needed ice year-round to ensure even

As the ice harvesting business grew and developed it became more common for
the average homeowner to have ice boxes to store ice in the home. In 1856 a
system was patented based on ice being placed at the top of the box and air
circulating around it. During the late 1800’s dozens of companies entered the ice
box market. In 1874, the Maine Manufacturing Company started manufacturing
ice boxes (they called them refrigerators) in Fairfield, Maine. In 1894 the
company relocated to Nashua, New Hampshire.

The Decline of the Natural Ice Harvesting Business

Two main developments led to the decline of the natural ice harvesting
business. First was the development of artificial ice manufacturing. In 1834,
Jacob Perkins of Newburyport, Massachusetts obtained a British patent for
making artificial ice. He built a machine capable of producing ice in quantity by
vaporization. In 1848 Ferdinand Carre developed an ice making processing
employing ammonia. In 1850, Dr. John Gorrie, a physician from Apalachicola,
Florida obtained a patent for an ice machine which utilized gas and
compression. In 1868, the first artificial ice manufacturing plant was opened by
the Louisiana Ice Manufacturing Company.

Behind all of these inventions was the idea to replace natural ice with
manufactured ice in order to be able to produce ice year-round. They would
continue storing and delivering ice in blocks that consumers were used to, using
their same ice boxes. Artificial ice was seen as an alternative option to natural ice
and both natural ice and artificial ice continued to be produced into the 20th

As time went on, the electric refrigerator made the ice company obsolete. You
did not need to have the ice delivered. You could make your own at home. The
first “Domestic Electric Refrigerator” was marketed in Chicago in 1913.  

The combined success of manufactured artificial ice and the increased use of
electric refrigerators led to the near elimination of the natural ice harvesting
industry in America.  

Ice Harvesting is Still Alive & Well

However, natural ice harvesting is not dead! In small
towns such as Tamworth, NH,  families harvested ice
for their own use and sometimes as a small side business.  
Dr. Edwin C. Remick, the Remick museum’s founder,
harvested ice for use in his dairy business starting
in the 1930’s. Local Tamworth residents remember
Hook Welch harvesting ice on White Lake and selling
it to fishermen and camps well into the 1970’s.  To this
day, the historic Rockywold-Deephaven camp located
on Squam Lake still harvests ice for use in ice boxes
in their cabins.

The next time you open your refrigerator and find
your food still fresh, enjoy an iced beverage, go ice
fishing or skating, think back to a time when ice was
an important New England agricultural product.

About the author: Debra Cottrell is the Director of Education at the Remick Country
Doctor Museum and Farm in Tamworth, New Hampshire.   She also serves as a Folklorist
for the New Hampshire State Council for the Arts. For more information on this event or
on the museum visit
Remick Museum.
Ice Harvesting at the Remick Museum, Tamworth, NH
Ice Harvesting at The Remick Museum, Tamworth, NH
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