Before the Frigidaire, ice cutting provided refrigeration—and extra money for entreprenuers

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Originally published December 2003

Remember iceboxes? Remember emptying the drip pan? Remember what happened when you forgot to empty the drip pan?

Before refrigerators and freezers, there was the icebox. Providing the ice was never a big, organized business in Granby. Enterprising men would take up ice cutting for a winter or two to earn some extra money.

Around 1915, the late Leon Gilbert and Frank Kearns spent a winter cutting ice on Cranberry Pond (Manitook Lake). In 1978, Gilbert, then 87 years old, told me about the techniques and tools needed to cut ice.

The first thing they had to do was measure the depth of the ice. If it were a foot thick, they would plan to make their cuts 10 inches deep. They always kept two inches to stand on. A horse was used to pull a plow-like tool called a marker. It made two marks 12 inches apart. Another mark was made to make the piece one foot by two feet. Next, an ice plow about six feet long with teeth (like a long saw blade) was hitched to the horse. First a cut about six inches deep was made along the marked lines. Then a bigger ice plow was used to cut to the desired depth.

The ice cakes were then “barred out” by the men, using a bar with teeth to pry up the ice. Gilbert said the pieces usually broke off very clean and straight.

The men would pull the ice chunks to shore through a previously cut channel and sell it to the farmers who would come to the pond. After all their labor, the ice sold for only five cents a block. But, as Gilbert said, a nickel went farther in those days.

This circa 1922 photo shows (from left) Leslie Dewey, Lenny Dewey, Charlie Feyk, and William Henry Dewey cutting ice on Cranberry Pond—now known as Manitook Lake. Photo courtesy of Salmon Brook Historical Society

Granby did not have a large ice-storage house. Most farmers had their own sheds to store ice. The ice would last through the summer if it were kept well packed in at least six inches of sawdust.

Some farmers cut their own ice. There was a large pond where the Bradley Brook development is built. Most of the farmers in the East Street and Wells Road area got their ice from this pond. It was owned by Marcus Griffin who lived in the house on the southwest corner of Wells Road and East Street.

An ice storage house on Griffin Pond held between 4,000 and 5,000 cakes of ice. It was owned by Lester Clark, a butcher, who lived in the house on the northwest corner of East Street and Cooley Road. He needed the ice for meat storage in his store and for his peddler’s cart.

There was a big ice cutting industry on the Congamond Ponds that included at least five ice storage houses, one an acre in size. Ice was shipped out daily to Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and other cities.

Gilbert worked cutting Congamond Pond ice for several years. He said he worked “nine hours a day, seven days a week, in any kind of weather—sleet or snow—for $18.50 a week.” He used to work overtime, marking ice by lantern light starting at 1 a.m., then work a full day to 6 p.m., so he could earn $55 a week.

The ice company later replaced the horses with one-cylinder gas engines, but the men were still needed to labor cutting ice.

Next time you get some ice from your automatic ice cube maker, think of how it used to be!

With thanks to Faith Tyldsley who researched the Salmon Brook Historical Society archives to select this article and photo.