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Ice harvesting was Michigan's frozen winter tradition
The thick slabs of ice stacked inside were used throughout the year by businesses and homes before electric refrigeration became widespread. Ice harvesting in The Great Lakes region was typically a two-week stretch each January or February. In Michigan's ...
Gallery: Ice Harvesting
By Tanda Gmiter
LELAND, MI - If you've got a quaint picture in your head of how Michigan's commercial fishermen used to spend their off-season a century ago - maybe mending their nets in front of a fire while pulling on their favorite pipe - you're overlooking a frozen chunk of their winterIt was the annual ice harvest.
Fishing crews from towns up and down The Mitten's coast were largely responsible for the "winter bees" that filled up a community's ice housesThe thick slabs of ice stacked inside were used throughout the year by businesses and homes before electric refrigeration became widespread.
Ice harvesting in The Great Lakes region was typically a two-week stretch each January or FebruaryIn Michigan's Upper Peninsula, good ice could still be had into March.
Men would cut the ice on frozen lakes with hand saws, and later gas-powered circular sawsUsing a long-handled "spudder," they would break apart the floating rows of foot-thick ice into large slabsThey'd be loaded onto horse-drawn sleds and, in later years, empty truck beds.
The frozen haul would then be stacked in ice houses and packed in sawdust.
Larry Price, son of a third-generation fisherman in Leland, remembers getting out of school the winter he was 8 and seeing the Model A trucks packed with ice rumbling away from Lake LeelanauHe'd hitch a ride on them for a handful of blocks until they reached what's now the village's historic Fishtown area.
The "ice cakes" would be packed away in the ice houses, giving Price and other little kids a thrill to watch the adventure.
"I can remember riding in the truck," said Price, now 81 and still a Leelanau County resident"Sometimes the truck would fall through the ice, but they'd always get it back outThe water wasn't very deep."
When Winter Work Meant Summer Ice
The Leelanau Historical Society Museum recently shared a couple dozen vintage photos of ice harvesting in the 1920s and 1930s, which then was done largely on Lake Leelanau by the area's commercial fisherman and some merchants.
Michigan Tech University also shared images from its archives, some depicting ice hauling with horses from as far back as 1902.
The photographs give a good glimpse into a time when an entire industry like fishing was reliant on how much ice they could stash away during the winter.
Some of the smaller chunks were used to keep the communities' ice boxes cold throughout the yearBut much of it was used to store and ship the fish that was the lifeblood for many of Michigan's port townsFor that reason, a town's commercial fishermen used to handle ice harvests for a whole community.
The work itself took a lot of muscle and a good eye for the weatherSome years the calendar flipped to February before the ice was thick enough to cut - and support the weight of the horses and trucks needed to haul it awaySnow would have to be shoveled off and the ice scraped clearA quick warm-up could spell disaster.
Ozzie Cordes, who owned the Leland Mercantile with his brother, recalls seeing the ice harvests when he was a boyHere's his description, from Laurie Kay Sommers' book, "Fishtown."
"They had what was called an ice plough that scored ice with knives and would cut three- or four-inch furrowsEarly in the morning someone'd go down with a crosscut saw made for cutting ice, saw a strip of it, and then break it loose with a spud.
The loosened ice strip created a channel in the water that made it easier to saw and spud off individual cakes"The man who was good at it could make a pretty square cut," Cordes recalledLifting the heavy cakes of ice required large ice tongs and a strong backProtected by yellow oilskins and caulked boots, the men hoisted a cake and then dropped it back in the water"The surge would help them lift it up on the ice," Cordes explained"Then they would be able to slide it onto a farm sleigh with teams of horsesUsually the farm people from East Leland would come over and haul the ice at so much per load."
Lost Fingers and Horses
There were dangers, to be sure.
People were injured by the ice-hauling picks and huge metal tongsSome invariably lost a finger to a circular ice saw.
Horses pulling sleds sometimes met a tragic fate.
The Daily Mining Gazette interviewed the Larch family in 1954 for a feature on their ice-cutting business in the Upper Peninsula's Dollar Bay community.
That March, they were cutting and loading 1,400 tons of ice from Portage Lake, but were remembering earlier times when the family had horses on the ice.
"One time when he did all his cutting by horse and man power, he had a team slip through the ice and into the waterHe and his men were able to get one horse out, but the other one sank to the bottom."
As time went on, technology like gas-powered cutting equipment and conveyor belts allowed workers to cut more ice each season.
According to a Northport Tribune article from 1942, a commercial ice-cutting outfit owned by Germain Bussey put up more than 5 million pounds of ice that winter in northern Leelanau CountyEach block was cut into slabs that weighed about 172 pounds each.
End of a Frozen Era
By the end of World War II, electric refrigeration was becoming more widespreadThe community ice house era largely ended in the 1950s in places like Leland.
That also put an end to the raucous parties that traditionally had marked the end of each "winter bee."
One man interviewed by the Leelanau Enterprise was mum on the details of those parties from long ago"The wives didn't like it much," he said.
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