January 16, 2009

Ice Harvest (Sketch #12)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:33 pm


Of their faces I have no memory, or names,
….. I only know
they poled ice floes and huge cakes
with an indifferent touch, that they argued
long hours against the cold, the wind,
and the incessant and desperate need
for sleep, that at -zero degrees they mopped
brows with red kerchiefs large as sails.

Tom Sheehan, “Cutting Ice”

With each January the deep freeze came. Weeks and weeks and weeks of relentless bitter cold. The Lake Erie winds swept in and snow covered the ground. Great drifts lined the hard snow-packed gravel roads, creating a tunneling effect for our daily trudges back and forth to school. The pond froze solidly to a depth of a foot or more. And it was time to cut and store ice for the summer months.

Aylmer in those days didn’t allow kerosene refrigerators. Still don’t, as far as I know. The people fashioned rough ice boxes from old used electric refrigerators and placed a chunk of ice in the top compartment to keep it cool. Pretty primitive. But it works. Somewhat. And it’s a lot better than nothing.

The communal ice house was on our farm, converted from an old pig barn Dad had built after moving to Aylmer. Built into a hill, the north side of the bottom floor half buried in the earth. Dad had some new fangled idea that the barn would heat easier if the bottom story was below ground level. Which was a fine idea, probably ahead of its time, except the barn was always damp, because he didn’t get the foundation sealed properly. Raising pigs was a sporadic activity for him anyway, so in time the barn was used for other things. Its cool, damp interior provided the perfect conditions for storing ice long term.

They spoke of it a week or two before. Wondered if the ice on the pond was thick enough. Dad or one of my older brothers tramped out with an axe and chopped a couple of holes at various spots. Measured for thickness. And then one day it was proclaimed. Anyone who wanted ice the next summer should come to our place on the designated date and help cut and haul the ice blocks.

The men gathered that morning from across the community, driving teams of draft horses hitched to bob sleds. Someone dragged out the mothballed ice cutter, an ingenious contraption on two wood-spoked buggy wheels, with a platform in the middle. On it was mounted a gasoline engine and off to one side a large round wicked saw-tooth blade. Brown and rusted from nonuse. The thing was probably concocted by Levi Slaubaugh, the blacksmith. I don’t know who owned it. It always just showed up on that day.

The teams and sleds were parked off shore, while the men shoveled and cleared snow from large square areas on the ice. Maybe thirty feet by thirty feet. After the first area was cleared, the men started clearing another one close by, while the operator approached with the cutter saw and fired up the engine. The saw blade buzzed viciously, the operator slowly pressured it down through the ice. It made a high clean whine as it sliced through to the cold water below. And slowly the operator pushed the cutter saw back and forth. Cutting through the ice in a large grid, about a foot apart. After cutting all the lines one way, he then started cutting across. And slowly the large blocks were cleanly sawed. Ready now to be heaved out and loaded on the sleds.

The teams and bob sleds pulled up then, and the men approached the large cut area armed with poles and tongs. Gingerly they pushed a few blocks of ice down into the water below the others. So they could grasp the others with their tongs. And then the blocks were pulled out in quick rhythm. As the square cleared of ice, they pushed the distant blocks within reach with their poles. And soon that square was devoid of ice blocks, an empty maw of frigid black water.

It was hard cold brutal work. Bend over, hook the tongs on a block and heave it out. The icy water sloshed on the snow and onto their denim pants, which soon froze stiff. Then lift the block and heave it onto the sled. The blocks were heavy, weighing probably fifty to eighty pounds each. After several layers of blocks were loaded on the sled, the driver slapped the reins and clucked to the team. They jangled off, the bob sled slicing smoothly through the snow. Down the lane on the east side of the pond, toward the road. Then west the few hundred feet to our drive, the sled now and again hitting a patch of gravel or exposed dirt, the horses straining momentarily to pull the abruptly resistant load.

Up to the north side of the old pig barn, there the sled halted. Down below, two men waited in the gloomy interior. A Coleman lantern glowed dimly in the flickering shadows. The blocks were then lifted from the sled and placed on a wooden chute and slid into the darkness below. There the two men stacked them, tamping each layer with several inches of wet brown fine-cut sawdust that we had hauled over months before from Eli C. Miller’s sawmill. The last block slid down the chute and the bob sled driver headed out for another load.

And so it went all day long, cutting, loading, hauling, unloading. A great pile of ice blocks accumulated in the ice house.

They usually harvested the ice from the southern, shallower half of the pond. Just in case. The northern end was deep, deeper than a man. If someone slipped and fell in, he might never come up again.

We children were usually in school on ice cutting day. Probably just as well, so we wouldn’t get underfoot, or fall into the water. One day, we came home from school to a great buzz of excitement. No one was unloading ice, and all the sleds were parked on the east bank of the pond, empty. Men were running about, lugging large wooden planks and ropes and talking in loud excited voices. We were soon told why, and ran out to see for ourselves.

One of the drivers had allowed his team to get too close to the cutout hole. One horse slipped and slid in, dragging his partner with him. Somehow the sled was unhitched. Now the two horses stood there in chest deep freezing water, shivering and panicked.

I don’t know how they got the team out of that frigid black watery grave, but they did. With planks and a contraption of ropes and pulleys, the men somehow got the horses’ front hooves out over the ice again. And pulled them out with another team. The shivering horses were quickly led into our warm barn and wiped down. They both survived, amazingly.

After a day or two of cutting and hauling and storing, the ice house was full enough. For everyone’s needs in the summer months. The final pile was covered with a foot or more of sawdust. So the ice would actually be there next summer when we needed it.

And it always was. Amazingly well preserved. We dug into the sawdust pile with shovels and pried the blocks loose with sticks, exposing the great frozen chunks from another world. Lugged them outside and washed them with the water hose. For use in the ice box. And for our frequent summer treat, home made ice cream.

Ice harvesting as we knew it exists only in a few locales today. Probably still in Aylmer and a handful of other Amish communities that hold the line. People who obstinately refuse to modernize to kerosene or gas refrigerators. But that’s their choice. And it’s fine. The Amish lifestyle in general preserves a lot of old methods that would otherwise be lost. I hold no strong opinion as to whether that’s a good thing or an indifferent thing. It’s just the way it is.

I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Surrounded by uncouth ruffians, otherwise known as Eagles fans. It ain’t right. Probably not entirely safe, either.

For those out of the loop, the thug Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Giants (as I feared) and now need only one more win to reach the Super Bowl. After the Giants game, I received many inane texts from Eagles fans, mostly repeating the same idiotic phrase, “Fly, Eagles, fly.” You’d think they could come up with something a bit more original. But apparently that’s about the extent of their literary aspirations.

Eagles fans are known worldwide as more akin to English soccer fans than anything else. The roughest, most uncouth fans in the NFL. Some years ago, Santa himself was famously booed at an Eagles game. How childish is that? And once, back in the 1990s, as a Cowboys player lay temporarily paralyzed on the field, seriously injured, the lowlife Eagles fans cheered. Kind of gives you an idea of what I’ve got to deal with every week. And it only gets more intense with each Eagles win.

But they are where they are. The team, I mean. Playing Arizona this Sunday afternoon. I fear for the Arizona players, but remain hopeful they will continue their amazing run and beat the thugs.

I’ve never liked McNabb. Most Eagles fans, in their more honest moments, would agree with me. But even so, I’ve come to grudgingly respect him. He’s an old warrior, a grizzled veteran, on a last desperate quest to win it all. And he may just get it done.

But I hope not. And hope is a precious thing.

My predictions: Arizona and Baltimore in the Super Bowl. Come on, Cardinals. Don’t let me down now.

Before I post again, The One will be crowned King for Life, in the most lavish inauguration ceremony this country has ever seen. The whole world will look on in awe and wonder, as the sycophantic press swoons with breathless accolades. It’s sickening. Not the actual event. He won and deserves some attention as he enters office. And it is a historic thing, our first non-white President. But the orgasmic proclamations of the coming of the Messiah are a bit much. I’m already fed up. Tuned out. Can’t imagine that I’ll watch any of it. Unless it’s grimly, as a solemn witness to the breaking dawn of imminent disaster. Maybe even the end of the world. (Just kidding on that last one).



  1. Ira, I agree with your take on the Eagles = Thugs! As a Tampa Girl, we just got the news that Gruden is Gone! As well as GM Bruce Allen. Who will coach the Bucs next season? Any predictions?

    Ira’s response: It’s anyone’s guess. Maybe Tony Dungy???

    Comment by Michelle V. — January 16, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

  2. Yes, in honor of our new president, let’s all hope for a sound defeat of the thug Eagles! And also HOPE the next four years will go real fast and that Obama will be the next Jimmy Carter. A do nothing president that will be soundly defeated by the GOP s next Reagen, maybe Sarah Palen or Mitt Romney, my two favorite national politicians! Also kudos to our president Bush, he was the first president I ever voted for, and I know he wasn’t perfect, but after four years of Obama, Mr. Bush will have looked like the messiah! Obama is the most inept person ever elected to the White House. It’s a sad day in America.

    Comment by Matt Yutzy — January 16, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

  3. You must be prescient in you Super Bowl predictions. I also predict Arizona and Baltimore, and I go so far as to predict Arizona winning by a narrow margin. Nothing against teams from Pennsylvania.

    I will be watching lots of inaugeration coverage. This event is something our grandkids will study in their political science and history classes.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — January 16, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

  4. Mom was remembering the time her and Joseph were the only ones left out on the ice after everyone else had gone home. They were pulling some of the huge chunks out for the family’s use when Joseph fell into the icy water as the piece of the ice he was standing on started sinking. After screaming to no avail she stepped over onto the same piece of ice and pulled him up with one hand, powered by something other then herself. She plainly remembers Joseph’s 3 or more layers of clothing and his struggle in the water and how they about couldn’t convince the rest of the family of their “exciting” story…

    On the same note, one of the recent Aylmer Budget pieces spoke of the ice gathering process. Sounds quite interesting! I guess one of the things I am most thankful for is a “real” refrigerator.

    Comment by Dorothy — January 16, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

  5. Have you all forgotten about the STEELERS!!? Steelers and Eagles and the STEELERS win number 6!!!!!:)

    Comment by Tom — January 16, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  6. It makes me shiver to read your ice story, I remember full well those times. I believe in Aylmer they use containers to freeze their ice in, instead of the old dangerous way. Several things in my life I will never take for granted, including a refrigerator and my washer and dryer.

    Comment by Rachel — January 16, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

  7. The Phillies did it and now the Eagles will too!! You’ll never hear the end of it at Sunday lunch if that happens… maybe that’s what you’re afraid of.(-: I think this is the first time I’m leaving a comment… Too bad I’m disagreeing with you… So on a better note, aside from the Philly bashings, I do enjoy your blog, uncle! ~Elaine

    Ira’s response: If the Eagles win the Super Bowl, you probably won’t see me at your place for Sunday lunch for a long, long time.

    Comment by Elaine Wagler — January 17, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  8. I enjoy your blog. I have admired your father’s gift for writing for many years, and you inherited some of his talents. I must defend my fellow Eagle fans. I know there are some uncouth ones, but you will find those in every team’s fanbase. As for the Santa story, the reason he was booed is because he showed up drunk, so he deserved every boo. There is no excuse for cheering a player’s injury, but again, you will find fans at any game who will do the same thing. It’s not just the Eagle fans. A friend was at a Browns game and was told he should leave before the game is over if he wants to walk out. I know it’s hard to put up with success of a team you don’t like, but it will soon be over and a new season will start in 7-1/2 months.

    Comment by LBK — January 17, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

  9. I think I will stick with Rush Limbaugh on the whole MacNabb situation. He will not win a Super Bowl!

    Comment by Andrew Yutzy — January 17, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

  10. If you do not understand Philadelphia’s booing, it’s because you’re a non-native.

    I remember on a past furlough caravaning north with my folks. We stopped at a motel. My mom whipped out her Eagles credit card for their room, in some southern state. As soon as the gentleman got off the phone, he took the card, and without hesitation, before any other utterance or acknowledgment, said, “The Eagles? They stink!” We all knew immediately that he was originally from the Philadelphia area, and commenced conversation.

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — January 17, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

  11. Go eagles. Right now isn’t a good time to be an eagle hater. I think it’s sad some people (who call themselves educated sports fans) repeat the ESPN blather such as the santa and Michael Irvin stories. To call a team “thugs” when it’s really a collection of nice guys is also dumb and shows what kind of sports iq some people really have. Lets talk about facts. The Eagles have allowed 1 passing td in their last 7 games and that was a meaningless one at the end of the 1st Giants game. How exactly are the Cards gonna win again if Fitz and Bolden can’t get into the end zone? Sorry but you’re gonna have to endure two more weeks of razzing and then another parade!! Go Philly,go!!

    Ira’s response: I’m retching here. You don’t like McNabb any more than I do. It’s always a good time to be an Eagle hater. And thugs will never be mistaken for nice guys on this site.

    Comment by ira lee wagler — January 17, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

  12. Short a complete miracle McNabb and his Eagles will once again come up short, Cards 24 Eagles 6 at half-time.

    I attended the Daviess Co. reunion last nite with Uncle Dave and Ida Mae, also Marvin and Rhoda Yutzy present. The annual event is always a lively one.

    Comment by P Graber — January 18, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

  13. It’s GREAT to be Kurt Warner today! What a life story this man has. Good Luck in Tampa. Let’s see which TEAM will join you? Hey Ira Lee do you like the taste of CROW? heehee

    Comment by Michelle V. — January 18, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

  14. Instead of “fly Eagles fly,” I say “Cry EAGLES Cry”!!!!

    Comment by Matt Yutzy — January 18, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

  15. Well Ira Lee, guess your last attempt at hope by stating dire predications of the Eagles being able stop passing td’s was firmly squashed in the first half….

    I agree with uncle Ira, the Eagles are thugs, shamelessly so and they did deserve to lose this game, after the comments from McNabb from his interviews last week, (posted on NFL.com) you knew he thought he was good enough to just walk in and win.

    However, the Cardinals and their fans came to PLAY and win, not just talk trash. The stadium was a sea of red and white, a few brave Eagles fans scattered between. I believe they only managed to spell out the silly E-A-G-L-E-S chant a few times and were quickly and efficiently silenced. I will also admit to never sitting down the entire game and cheering madly for every sack or late hit on good old McNabb. May he continue to be stunned over his failure to win, and may he perhaps decide to retire in the off season?? Oh and ehmmm, anyone notice the stats for Westbrook for the game?

    OK, I will stop now. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I was lucky to be there. To you Eagles fans, better luck next time.

    Comment by Janice — January 19, 2009 @ 9:56 am

  16. Risking being bumped for two posts, I want to take up your continued ribbing re: prophecy (which is not just, or even primarily, prediction). You said it doesn’t take a prophet to see judgment coming on a unrepentant nation filled with innocent blood. I’ve often said the same. But many do ignore and fail to see this. It is only as we have the Scriptural lens (which came through a few prophets and apostle-prophets) that we have a sure word on which to base such an idea.

    Amos disclaimed, “I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet” (suggesting there were many falsely self-named in his day, too). But in fact he was, as he continued about his fig work, praying and looking to God.

    This is a better meditation than the Eagles (since yesterday afternoon)….

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — January 19, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  17. My wife and I have been reading our boys the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and it was just a few weeks ago that we read them her account of ice harvesting. After reading your account, I had to print it out and read it to them also. They got to see some of the differences e.g. the addition of gasoline engines and used refridgerators. But they were also pleased to already know some of the ‘answers’ e.g. grid-cutting for uniform block sizes and using sawdust packing to keep the ice icy. Both stories involved mishaps; in your case the horses, in the other Almanzo, a young boy who fell in and was pulled out. It also seemed to make the experience less distant to them since we weren’t talking about the distant 1800’s anymore but a current life. I’m really glad I came across this one and I enjoyed sharing the story with them. By now they probably know more about ice harvesting that any kid in their class. Useless knowledge perhaps but I’m glad they know about it.

    Comment by Eric — April 27, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

  18. These are my favorite stories, those of your youth. What a gift to have been raised Amish as a child. At least in your family where there didn’t appear to be any major dysfunction. I can see the tight knit community being a great comfort, for the most part.

    I think my brother would have done well as an Amish man. Having strong bonds with other males. He never had that. And he’s a hard worker who’s honest and kind. I just think it would have suited him.

    Comment by Francine — February 18, 2014 @ 1:29 am

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