It’s the late 1800s and farmers are cutting ice. This winter, it’s cold enough to harvest it at Howell Living History Farm.
So, why keep this kind of history and work alive?
“Well, it sure puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? It teaches us where the technology we use today came from, what the advances were, why it’s important and how it’s changed the way we live and work,” said the farm’s director Pete Watson.
The farm is part of the Mercer County Park Commission. Ice harvesting is a job that requires about a dozen people and a horse. The team works quickly on the farm’s pond, which is 8 feet deep. The ice is 7 inches thick, enough to support the weight of the crew.
Before the staff and volunteers cut the ice, they score it with a marker that creates a pattern, so the blocks are the same size. During a good year, they’ll fill the ice house with about 1,200 blocks that are 40 pounds each.
The crew uses saws to cut the ice.
“If you do this for about an hour, your shoulders and arms will be burning,” said Watson.
Then, they lift the block from the water and slide it across the frozen pond. It’s pushed up a wooden track, secured with a hook and hauled up. That’s where Tom, the horse, steps in with the help of his harness and a hitch. He’s able to pull several blocks to the top of the slide. There, it’s pushed into the ice house.
It’s easy to take it for granted now, as we can now open our freezers. But years ago, ice harvesting was big business, says Watson.
“Natural ice came by rail from points north to ports, and then it was used on ships. It arrived from its source via train in many cases, but locally sometimes a wagon was used. Ice went to ice houses that were located in rail yards and shipyards. In cities, if you lived in a city and had an ice box, somebody came around in the morning with a horse and wagon, the ice man,” explained Watson.
“It really brings you back to a different century, gives you a feel for how life used to be,” said Jessica Valenza, an intern at Howell Living History Farm.
The farm uses the ice for student and visitor demonstrations. Watson’s happy it’s been so cold. Over the past 30 years, his team has only been able to harvest ice a dozen times. This is a winter they’ll always remember.