Ice Harvesting: Local History, Literature & Culture

Local Living History & Ice Harvesting

Filling the Ice House (1934) Harry Gottlieb. Oil on canvas, 40 3/8 x 60 3/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Transfer from the U.S. Department of Labor, 1964.1.19

Historically, living without refrigerators in New England required strategies for prolonged food storage and preservation. In the November/December Seasons edition of Learning Ahead, we looked at different forms of food preservation such as curing, salting, and canning. Early New Englanders didn’t have the luxury of refrigerators, but they did harvest ice from frozen lakes and ponds in order to keep food stored without spoiling. The frozen chunks of ice harvested were kept insulated by materials such as sawdust in a dark, cool place so that the ice would last beyond the winter months.  Read the rest of this entry »

Ice Harvesting: Community Events & Resource

Ice Harvesting: Community Events & Resource

Throughout the winter, check our list of Weekly Suggested Events for community events and demonstrations of ice harvesting. Here are three featured resources in Western MA to add to your itinerary:

Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge.

Fire & Ice Days is an annual celebration with ice harvesting demonstrations showing how 19th century Americans adapted their lifestyles to the cold New England winters.

Read the rest of this entry »

Literary Explorations of Ice Harvesting

Henry David Thoreau & “The Pond in Winter”

Ice harvesting is embedded within the history and cultural traditions of New England. So much so, in fact, that it also influenced the literary reflections of  writers such as Henry David Thoreau who described the harvesting of ice in his chapter, “The Pond in Winter,” from Walden. As you explore ice harvesting through  living history demonstrations and artifacts from the past, read Thoreau’s chapter on  “The Pond in Winter” for historical understanding from a literary perspective.  Read the rest of this entry »

Sense of Place: Ice Harvesting

Think about this:

What were the challenges of ice harvesting that the modern refrigerator eliminates in terms of food preservation and food storage?

How did ice harvesting force New Englanders to think about their daily lives all year round? (Reread Thoreau’s passage for a hint!) How did harvesting ice connect people with the seasons and their natural environments?

Given early New Englanders’ dependency on natural resources, what challenges did New Englanders face that we no longer worry about given our modern technologies? What did they not worry about?


Download our Jan/Feb edition of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts for embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.

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Ice Harvesting in Western MA

Five Ways to Learn about the History of Ice Harvesting in Western MA

Ice Harvesting, Massachusetts, early 1850s. [Source: Gleason's Drawing Room Companion, 1852, p.37]

Ice harvesting is an industry of the past, and one whose roots lie only in cold climates – like western Massachusetts! Done both as a necessity in early New England and as a profitable industry more recently, ice harvesting plays an important role in local history. Over the course of the next few weeks, numerous opportunities exist for families to learn about and take part in ice harvesting!

In the days of western Massachusetts past, when refrigerators weren’t standard kitchen equipment, ice was quite a luxury during the summer. In order to have ice after the spring thaw began, early New Englanders would have to harvest and strategically store ice from local lakes and ponds. Kept in the proper conditions (in the dark, and surrounded by insulation – usually sawdust), the harvested ice would last much longer than the cold weather did.

In addition to providing cool comfort at home during a New England summer, Massachusetts’ past ice harvesting industries sent locally frozen chunks all over the world. Begun in 1844 by Frederic Tudor, the local ice industry shipped ice first to London, then to warmer climates all over the world where, before electric refrigeration, ice was essentially unheard of. By the early 20th century, ice was one of America’s biggest crops (measured by weight).

Part of a rich history of economic pursuits driven by available natural resources, ice harvesting plays an important role in the history of communities all over western Massachusetts. Throughout the upcoming month, local historical societies and museums offer families opportunities to learn – in some cases, experientially – about the process of ice harvesting.  Read the rest of this entry »

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