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Historic Hallowell

Ice Cutting and Ice Houses on the Bombahook

Ice houses were a big part of the industry on the Kennebec. There were three icehouses in Hallowell located on Summer Street, the Vaughan Stream, and where the Hallowell boat landing is today. They served as the holding place of the ice before they went to other states or even other countries. Ice harvesting was one of the most important jobs and industries along the Kennebec at the turn of the century.

Around 1869 and 1870, the winter weather in Massachusetts and New York was warm, so they bought their ice from Maine. In 1826, the ice industry rose in popularity and employed thousands of people over the next seventy-five years. Did you know that the ice industry came to Hallowell almost by mistake? In 1820, Captain John Bradstreet was sailing when nasty weather forced him to port his ship in Randolph. This is where he stored the ice that he had harvested in the hull of his ship and then sold the ice at other ports for a profit.

The Knickerbocker Ice Co. was a large ice corporation that was also in Pennsylvania. The cost of cutting and storing the ice in the houses was about 35¢ a ton. The Knickerbocker Ice Co. in Farmingdale burned down in 1895 with only the chimney left, but the whole thing was demolished in 1911 to make room for the Central Maine Power Plant.

Ice harvesting was a very important job in Hallowell’s history. Ice was big business while employing about 9,000 people and 3,000 horses. The ice was cut by hand. After the snow was scraped from the area, the ice was plowed out. The ice plow was a weighted, horse-drawn machine with a row of sharp teeth which cut a narrow furrow six or seven inches deep. A marker scratched a line for the next cut. The plow was run one way over an area and then over the other at right angles, plowing out a checkerboard pattern. The common size of the ice cakes were twenty two inches by twelve inches and weighed about a hundred pounds. Sometimes the cakes were broken apart. Men would guide blocks of ice towards the conveyor belt that lifted the ice into the ice houses for shipping later. The workers used splitting forks and pick poles to line up the blocks that were lifted by the steam hoist. Byron Weston's ox team (picture shown below) was first used to haul blocks of ice from Cascade Pond to the Arthur Moore ice house between Middle and Summer Street. Later, gasoline powered trucks were used until the ice harvesting operation closed down around 1950.

When they cut the blocks of ice, people stored it until summer. The small farm buildings, used to store ice through the summer, were recognized by their thick, insulated walls and few windows. The roof had broad, overhanging eaves to shade the walls as much as possible. Many ice houses had a small, entry room lit by a small window and an insulated room, connected by air ducts to the ice storage space for storing dairy products and meats. The recommended packing, or insulation, was made up of sawdust, charcoal powder, straw, or hay. Occasionally, brick or stone-walled ice houses were built into a bank of earth with an entrance facing the north. These houses were often located under evergreen trees or other shady locations. After spring, the ice was shipped in sawdust to the south, Central America. Ice was even shipped away to countries like Cuba and the West Indies. Usually the ice was shipped to nearby cities like Boston. A million tons of ice was exported a year! Seasonal workers, such as farmers, depended on this ice industry because if they got lots of ice that winter, then the men could harvest more which meant they got paid more. The men depended on their income from the ice industry to take care of their families.

Today, the ice industry no longer exists. The reason why the ice industry shut down was that water pollution was affecting the quality of the ice, and no one wanted polluted ice. The river got very polluted when the sewage and toilet waste got flushed into the river. All the men that worked for the ice industry lost their jobs. After World War II, the refrigerators were invented which took on the role of storing and making ice.