The ice men come to Walden Pond (Walden 186)

Harvesting on Lake St Clair, Michigan - circa 1905. Wikimedia Commons

Harvesting on Lake St Clair, Michigan – circa 1905. Wikimedia Commons

“To speak literally, a hundred Irishmen, with Yankee overseers, came from Cambridge every day to get out the ice. They divided it into cakes by methods too well known to require description…” — Henry David Thoreau, from “The Pond in Winter,” Walden

Today, of course, it does require description. The ice trade was a big deal in New England prior to the advent of refrigeration. Simply put, the region had bitterly cold winters and lots of lakes. Ice was cut in blocks and hauled to ice houses where they were stacked and insulated (often by being covered in sawdust), and then sold throughout the warm weather months.

Thoreau continues his description (paragraph breaks added):

Selection of ice-cutting tools, late nineteenth century, via Wikipedia

Selection of ice-cutting tools, late nineteenth century, via Wikipedia

“…and these, being sledded to the shore, were rapidly hauled off on to an ice platform, and raised by grappling irons and block and tackle, worked by horses, on to a stack, as surely as so many barrels of flour, and there placed evenly side by side, and row upon row, as if they formed the solid base of an obelisk designed to pierce the clouds. They told me that in a good day they could get out a thousand tons, which was the yield of about one acre.

“Deep ruts and ‘cradle-holes’ were worn in the ice, as on terra firma, by the passage of the sleds over the same track, and the horses invariably ate their oats out of cakes of ice hollowed out like buckets. They stacked up the cakes thus in the open air in a pile thirty-five feet high on one side and six or seven rods square, putting hay between the outside layers to exclude the air; for when the wind, though never so cold, finds a passage through, it will wear large cavities, leaving slight supports or studs only here and there, and finally topple it down.

“At first it looked like a vast blue fort or Valhalla; but when they began to tuck the coarse meadow hay into the crevices, and this became covered with rime and icicles, it looked like a venerable moss-grown and hoary ruin, built of azure-tinted marble, the abode of Winter, that old man we see in the almanac — his shanty, as if he had a design to estivate with us.

“They calculated that not twenty-five per cent of this would reach its destination, and that two or three per cent would be wasted in the cars. However, a still greater part of this heap had a different destiny from what was intended; for, either because the ice was found not to keep so well as was expected, containing more air than usual, or for some other reason, it never got to market. This heap, made in the winter of ’46-7 and estimated to contain ten thousand tons, was finally covered with hay and boards; and though it was unroofed the following July, and a part of it carried off, the rest remaining exposed to the sun, it stood over that summer and the next winter, and was not quite melted till September, 1848. Thus the pond recovered the greater part.”

(End of chapter, “The Pond in Winter”)

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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