The bygone craft of ice harvesting

Josh Cline is the executive director at the Stonewall Farm in Keene, NH

The tools Josh Cline is holding — a saw and a breaker bar — are just a few of the ice harvesting tools in the extensive collection on display at Stonewall Farm in Keene. As executive director of the farm — with its mission of agricultural education — Cline has had a chance to indulge his love of antique tools and also learn about their history. Each winter, when (and if, in today’s unpredictable climate) the ice on the farm’s pond is at least six inches thick, the tools come off the shelves to demonstrate to the farm’s visitors how pond ice was harvested in the olden days — cut and conveyed to a nearby ice house, where it will (amazingly) stay frozen for months. Why is important to know about a bygone craft like that? Because, says Cline, “You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

How was ice harvested?
Whether it was a small farmer or a large ice company, ice was cut into blocks with a saw in the depths of winter, hauled to the ice house and stored for later use.

How did the ice stay frozen in warm weather?
The ice house was insulated with sawdust or straw.

Would it last through the summer?
Yes — even year-round.

How thick does it have to be?
Six inches at least.

Was it a crop for farmers?
Some called it the first crop of the season in New England (maple sugaring came next). It became big business by the early 1800s, so it was not just a farmer’s crop.

How much did they have to harvest?
Anywhere from enough for one block every few days for a family’s icebox, to tons of ice for commercial coolers.  At the height of the ice-harvesting era, 10,000,000 tons were harvested, and shipped as far away as India and China.

Did the blocks that the ice man delivered to homes come from ponds?
Yes, ponds or lakes.

How long would the blocks last in those non-mechanical iceboxes?
It would depend on how warm it was, how often the door was opened, what was being chilled, but it would certainly last for days.

It wasn’t long ago that refrigerators were still called iceboxes.
It is amazing how fast technology changes and what we take for granted. Many parts of the world have little or no refrigeration, making food storage much more difficult. We are working on off-grid, solar-powered refrigeration at the farm — an intriguing juxtaposition to cutting ice in winter.

When was mechanical refrigeration invented?
Beginning in the 1850s inventors began making “artificial ice,” meaning ice was made by machine, not harvested from lakes. This meant it was still stored and delivered. The first electric refrigerator (no ice needed) was marketed in 1913.

Did farmers stop harvesting ice after that?
Like any new technology it takes time for it to become economically viable, and accepted by the public. My mother remembers harvesting ice in the 1930s — but as an industry ice harvesting had disappeared by then.

Do we know how far back the practice goes?
In the United States we know that George Washington was harvesting ice, although this was done primarily by the wealthy.

Has climate change affected your harvest?
Absolutely. When and how much water freezes varies tremendously each year. Climate change also impacts maple sugaring and other agricultural practices.

Talk about the museum and ice harvesting programs.
Stonewall Farm was the lucky recipient of an ice harvesting tool collection, which is on display in the front of our sugar house. There are multiple examples of drills, saws, pikes, ice breakers and axes, even a horse-drawn ice-scoring tool. The farm and the tool museum are open every day at no cost.

We offer ice harvesting programs for schoolchildren on weekdays in February (weather dependent). For the whole family ice harvesting is part of our annual Frozen Farm Fest, which is held on February 7 this year, along with our Wild and Scenic Film Festival.

Why is it important that kids (and adults) learn about how they used to harvest ice?
You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. Refrigeration (ice) was a turning point in food storage and safety that we take for granted today.

For more information about Stonewall Farm programs, visit

Categories: Q&A