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Area Waterways Supplied Ice for Refrigeration In “Good Old Days”

So far, this winter has been a fairly mild one, but of course, that can change. Winters in the past were not always this mild. The chill and cold would often freeze solid waterways area. This development was turned into an advantage with the harvesting of ice that resulted from these extreme freezes.

Today we take for granted going to get some cold food or beverage from the refrigerator; there was a time, however, when that refrigerator was literally an “ice box” that kept items cold by using ice that was harvested from area streams the previous winter.

This ice was also stored and used by mortuaries, creameries, hospitals, hotels, general stores, and food service establishments.

Usually, this time of year in the “good old days,” the Susquehanna River and area waterways such as Lycoming, Pine, Muncy, Larry’s, and Loyalsock creeks would be teeming with men clothed in heavy woolen jackets, bulky gloves, fur hats, carrying large saws and axes to cut ice from the frozen streams.

According to a Grit article from January 1980, the ice harvesting process was “not for weaklings.” It involved harvested ice blocks that were bulky and of considerable weight, and it was ideally done in harshly cold weather conditions in which “the snow glittered and was like snow underfoot when the ice could be lifted from the surface of the water with dripping water that would freeze instantly when the ice was smooth and dark, swept bare of snow and 12 or more inches thick, the weather was perfect for cutting ice.”

This work could also be dangerous as well. Ice harvesters could slip and fall into the freezing water or suffer injuries while using the tools of their trade. The possibility of contracting a serious respiratory disease such as pneumonia was also ever-present and, in a time before the availability of antibiotics to treat such maladies, could also be fatal.

In the days before motorized transport became common, horses drawn plows would be used in the process. Men using these would mark off the length and breadth of the surface of the ice-clogged waterways and mark it out for the chopping of blocks of ice of various sizes.

After being marked out, a hole was chopped in the ice, and big-toothed cross-cut saws were lowered into the water, and workers began sawing out blocks of ice by hand; this would produce floating blocks of ice.

Men with long spiked poles then pushed these blocks, the blocks were then picked up with big ice tongs, loaded onto a horse-drawn wagon or sled, and hauled to the many ice houses.

According to the Grit article, the ice houses were long, barn-like structures that had double thick walls. Sawdust was put between the walls, and ice was on top of the ice for insulation to keep it cold.

Prompt storage of ice often made it possible for the ice to last through the summer and well into the fall.

To supplement the supply, several commercial businesses made artificial ice. According to a March 1954 Grit article, two of the leading ones in the area were the John Peters and Sons, 1320 East Third Street, and Stewart Artificial Ice Company, 739 First Street. Peters and Sons had 3,000 tons of ice in storage and supplied the needs of the local branch of the New York Central Railroad. The Stewart Company supplied ice to the local branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

A check of the 1924 Boyd’s Williamsport City Directory showed a dozen businesses in Williamsport selling and storing ice, such as A.J. Bower, 923 W. Front St., Flock Brewing Company, 601 Franklin St., J.E. Kriner, 212 Maynard St., L. Tilburg, 40 Fifth St., G.T. Wagner, 330 E. First Ave., South Williamsport, and R. Rodgers, 1429 Race St., just to name a few.

Ice was a big wintertime industry that had to help consumers through the rest of the seasons and was an important part of the winter scene here in the years gone by.