Lots of activity on the River today, as the Seaway gets ready for its March 20th opening.
With so little ice on the St. Lawrence this winter, I started wondering if, in the 19th century, there were winters like the one we’ve just had. A warm winter could result in no ice harvest at all, or thin ice that formed smaller blocks that could not be harvested safely. These winters were called “open winters”, and often resulted in shortages of ice called “ice famines”.
The winters of 1890 and 1906 were unseasonably warm in North America, and resulted in major ice famines. Over time, these ice famines promoted greater investment in plant ice production, ultimately undermining the natural ice trade by the early 20th century.
In Prescott, it was never too early, or even too late – even into the 1940s – to be thinking about the availability of good ice on the St. Lawrence, especially if your company required refrigeration or you hadn’t invested in one of the ever-improving home refrigerators sold by Frigidaire and others.
The business of ice harvesting was also known – especially in its early days – as the frozen water trade. It involved specialized ice-harvesting tools, a network of ice houses, and a reliable supply of jobs for off-season farmers.
On January 31, 1946 the Prescott Journal reported: “Harvesting of the 1946 ice crop on the river by Prescott ice dealers is expected to get underway during the latter part of the week. Despite the unusual mild spell which was experienced in early January, the ice is said to be from 11 to 12 inches deep and as clear as crystal throughout. Bartons and Wards will again be cutting west of the Town while Paul Curry will be harvesting in the channels to the east.”
With a marking saw, an oblong grid was etched on the snow-dusted surface of the river. Then came the task of sawing the first raft. When the large, rectangular raft floated free, long-handled breaker bars were dropped on the scored lines to break the blocks. Each individual cake was steered using a pike pole to direct the slow-moving white cubes through narrow bands of black water. The ice cakes – weighing more than 300 pounds – were loaded on a horse-drawn sled (or truck, in later years) and taken to a nearby ice house for storage.
Before mechanical refrigeration, snow and ice, cool streams, springs, caves and cellars were used to refrigerate food. During the latter half of the 19th century, ice boxes became all the rage in Europe and North America. Wooden boxes lined with tin or zinc and insulated with various materials including cork, sawdust, and seaweed were used to hold blocks of ice in an upper chamber and “refrigerate” food. A drip pan collected the melt water, and was emptied daily.
Natural ice was harvested, distributed and used both commercially and at home. It was packed in salt or buried in sawdust, and could stay frozen well into the Fall. The St. Lawrence River became a huge provider of the “purest ice”, and the Railway, the Port, the Dominion Lighthouse Depot, and Eastern Ontario’s many cheese factories became some of the largest clients of ice businesses such as I.W. Plumb & Son, in Prescott.
Located on the northeast corner of King and George streets, Plumb was known for the quality of its ice:
“The shades of dawn were rising fast – When through the streets of Prescott past – Many sleighs laden with ice – But not good ice, like Plumb’s pure ice.”
Breweries were some of the earliest factories to capitalize on the availability of water and ice from the St Lawrence River. In the 1860s, when the Labatt family took over the Prescott Brewing and Malting Co., it was said that “the brewery was fitted up with all the latest and most improved machinery and appliances…underneath the main floor of the brewery (was) excavated from the solid rock a large and roomy cold cellar in which an even temperature is maintained by many ice chambers…”
Often a dairy, meat or ice business offered customers a frozen food locker service, and this was available to Prescottonians well into the 1950s, thanks to The Prescott Frozen Food Lockers. Meats, poultry, fish, fruits, berries and vegetables could be prepared on site or at home, for freezing in rented lockers. Different coloured tapes were sometimes used to help distinguish similar products such as beef, pork or lamb. By the mid-1940s, most consumers agreed that freezing vegetables and berries was an attractive alternative to the “hot work” of canning.