Monday, January 12, 2009

DeMorest's Family Magazine (July,1894), "A Day on a [an] Ice-Field," by Alvaro Adsitt

The rose vine which climbed the balcony thrusts a spray of creamy blossoms in at my window as if to remind me that it is midsummer. As I lean to smell of them, as one might lean to receive a kiss, there is a rumble and a clatter in the street below, and a yellow-covered vehicle thunders by, upon whose side I read the word "ICE" and straightway my thoughts revert to another and a far different scene and season.

__I see before me a wide expanse of gleaming ice upon which the sun glimmers with a thousand sparkles. Yonder, swaying to and fro as in some mystic dance, go a pair of skaters. If that athletic young man with the bold, black eyes has not yet won the petite fair-haired girl at his side who clings so closely to him, though she is evidently a practised skater, he is more modest than his face betokens. And see how like a frightened gull yonder ice-boat swoops down the wind, swift as the flight of the swallow, leaping and bounding over the hummocks like a greyhound that has sighted his prey!

And hark! From yonder group of men who seem to be so busily at work, comes faintly upon the frosty air a song, a choral as robust, as resonant, as those the sailors sing when their bark is preparing for sea. These are the ice-cutters. No pleasure-seekers these, no makers of festivals, no chevaliers of the ladies but journeymen of nature, laborers who win bread from the fiercest moods of winter, who brave death itself to wrest from the gnomes of the frost the refreshment of thousands while the dog-star rages and the great cities faint under the merciless noon.

__These men sing as they saw and chop and heave, because they are overflowing with health, and because to them the fierce breath that blows from under the North Star is sweeter than the balmy airs from the South; for the midwinter is their harvest time.Come nearer and observe them: big, brawny, honest-eyed fellows, wondering that you should shiver in your furs, though the thermometer marks close upon zero.

Yonder is one with arms bare to the elbows; here is another up to his waist in water upon which the frost-needles collect as he stands; and here is yet another, tugging at a huge cake of ice. Look at him with admiration if you have an eye for physical strength; how the knotted tendons in his great arms and wrists attest the man's vast power. And do you observe he is perspiring, even in this keen air?

__"It is warm work," he tells his neighbor with the ice-saw, who agrees with him.Even during the coldest winter there are but few days during which the ice-harvest may be reaped. The farther north, of course the longer the season; but the farther north you go the farther you get from the your market, and the greater the loss sustained in transportation and storage. So it is not surprising that these men work like engines under full pressure. Besides, as our burly friend, the foreman, observes,

__"You have got to keep movin' or freeze fast."

__Yonder, near the farther shore, where the ice-boats are flitting to and fro and the skaters are wheeling about, there is a narrow strip of ice that the wind has swept clear; but over the larger portion of the frozen expanse the snow has become packed down and partially amalgamated with the mass below.__"All this has to be scraped off before we can begin cutting," our lusty informant tells us. "You couldn't no more cut ice with that rubbish atop of it than you could make a born liar tell the truth, -and, I take it, there ain't nothin' tougher'n that."__A low laugh of rich enjoyment of his own aphorism comes somewhere from the good-natured human jelly, which shakes with the convulsion as if it would liquefy though the thermometer is at zero.

__A long line of horses, each drawing a framework of heavy plank shod with steel, approaches us solemnly. Over the edges of these frames, in general shape triangular with the opening forward, the loose snow rolls and foams like the froth before the bows of a ship.

After the snow is cleared away, the surface of ice beneath, which is more or less porous and uneven, is planed down until the clear, homogeneous body is reached. Sometimes as much as three inches of this "rotten ice" , as it is called, has to be scraped away._"Don't stand still till ye freeze fast, boys," is the good-natured admonition of the foreman as the men pause to exchange a rude jest or a word of gossip and the smoking horses move on again in leisurely procession.

__Our friend tells us that ice must be perfectly clear, and from nine inches to one foot thick, if for home use, and at least twenty inches thick if it is to be exported; since, not withstanding the careful provision made for preserving it, from one-quarter to one-half its weight is lost in transport.

__Where we stand upon this hillock of snow we command a view of the whole busy scene. Ice cutting and harvesting are carried on by exclusively American methods, and with American tools and machinery.__"Who else but Americans could have invented them there?" says our friend, proudly pointing to the saws, plows, harrows, and similar apparatus before us. "Ice is an American institution. English ice is full of holes and so soft it melts if you speak loud; and as for the rest of Europe (he pronounces it "Yurrup") it hain't in sight. In Norway I believe they do have some little fair ice; but one New York hotel would use up the whole crop."

He goes on to tell us that New York and Brooklyn alone use in the neighborhood of three million tons a year, and that we export vast quantities to all parts of the world, in ships built especially for the purpose. __By this time the workmen have taken up their positions near the center of the lake, and the cutting begins. We learn that the ice in the middle of lakes and streams is always harder and purer than that near the shore and is stored by itself as a superior grade. Ice produced in the deep waters of Northern New York and Northern New England is all of high grade; that cut in the Kennebec River is the most celebrated.

__The first process in the cutting is the measuring out of a large square very accurately, the lines being deeply incised with an ice plough. Next, the original square is "marked" in smaller squares or, rather, oblongs, of a known size, generally twenty-four by thirty inches."It won't do to work by rule o'thumb," says the foreman. "The cakes have to be packed exactly, with no waste room. Besides, we can tell to a pound what each cake weighs when we take it out."

__The marker is a sort of harrow drawn by a horse, and provided at the back with an upright which serves both as a guide and as a handle upon which a man walking behind bears his weight so as to cause the teeth with which the left side of the marker is set to bite into the ice as it runs. The right side is a thin runner of steel. This runner is set into one of the plowed lines of the square, the horse is started and the machine travels across the field, the teeth cutting a deep furrow parallel with the side of the square.

Another marker, with its runner set in the groove cut by the teeth of the first, follows, making a second groove. When the square has been marked off thus in one direction, the toothed blades are adjusted to a narrower gauge, and a series of grooves are cut at right angles to the first set. Some markers are provided with several sets of saw-teeth, so that two or more grooves are cut at one time. Those shown in the illustration are of the simpler construction.

Now come the plows. They look like a sort of compound agricultural plow. Into a long, heavy beam are set eight separate blades, or shares, each notched at the bottom. Every plow is drawn by a single horse, and guided by ordinary plow-handles. The blades are set in the grooves made by the markers, and the plowing begins. Is it not a curious sight? See how the particles of ice spout up before the rending blades, like fountains of many-hued jewels blown gracefully before the wind. The surface upon which we stand trembles beneath our feet with a dull, continuous, jarring sound.__The whole square has now been plowed into checkers, each space representing a cake. The next stage is "breaking out". Let us go closer to observe the details.

__"Shall we not be in the way?"__"No," responds the foreman, and "No," say the good-natured, smiling faces of these robust fellows. How is it that laboring or living out-of-doors always seems to make human nature more kindly and genial? - I believe better in every way.So we stand near by and watch these men handle their saws, ice-forks, - heavy, long-tined tridents, - ice hooks, and ice-spades. When a single cake has been broken out, the saw-men begin along the plowed lines, the curious, double-handled saw-blades sliding through the solid substance with marvelous rapidity.

When the ice is very thick the whole cake need not be sawed out; the forks and spades applied to the plowed grooves will cleave it away with perfect accuracy.__The ice is cut away in such a fashion that a long, narrow canal of open water is made, connecting with a water-way always kept free to the shore. As fast as the cakes are severed, men with long-handled hooks seize them and float them down the canal. Let us follow one of these cakes upon its journey.

Along the Hudson and on many lakes and streams, the storage houses are built with their feet in the water, so to say; and in such cases the canals float the ice directly beneath the apparatus which hoists the cakes into the houses. But at the place illustrated, Burlington, on Lake Champlain, the storage buildings are at some distance from the lakeside, and the breakwater intervenes, requiring a deal of sliding, teaming, and skidding before the ice reaches its resting-place.

Here is what looks like a sort of half-finished toboggan slide; a rude, slanting framework of heavy timbers up which the cakes are jerked and pushed, in rapid succession, to the crown of the breakwater, then allowed to rush down upon the opposite side, by dint of their own weight, with a whirr and a flash, till they are skillfully checked at the bottom by workmen ready to receive them as they come.

Pause a moment and note the scene before you. In the foreground, the slide, - not a beautiful object, it is true, though as to its usefulness the incessant clash of the descending cakes speaks loudly; at its foot, the workmen, the rude sledges and the heavy teams; beyond, the snow covered expanse; and still beyond, the snow-covered expanse; and still beyond, the ice-houses turning their peaked ends toward us, steamer landings, factories, sheds, long rows of buildings, a stately dwelling or two, a church spire, the faint blue smoke from tall chimneys, all backgrounded upon a hazy horizon of leafless, wintry-looking forest.

__Now let us go on. We cannot go down the slide, unless you are willing to take undignified passage on one of those swiftly coursing blocks of ice; so we must even crawl down the bank as best as we may, putting our scraped shins and bruised flesh down to the general account of the day's experience.

The rough but highly practicable double-runner sledges are drawn up in succession at the foot of the slide, and as the cakes come down, as if with a frenzied intent to shoot, like unchained meteors, into space beyond, they are deftlly caught, and meekly take their places upon the waiting vehicles. One of these sledges has just received its complement, and starts slowly away, drawn by a pair of stout, hog-maned, awkwardly built, white horses, which, like all of the equine race we have seen here, seem to take their toil philosophically, as a necessary, but not intolerable, evil. The driver stands behind his load, and is, apparently, as deliberate, philosophical, and good-natured as his team.

This load, our friend informs us, weighs seven thousand pounds, - three and a half tons; but then, as the foreman says, "sledding is a heap sight easier than wheeling."__The route from the lake to the storage-houses is between dreary-looking sheds and forbidding fences. It is altogether a depressing aspect. Broken blocks of ice, perhaps the evidences of previous disasters to sled-loads, strew the discolored and frozen track.

__Even the shouts and songs of the drivers as they urge their teams along cannot put cheerfulness into the hopelessly uncomfortable scene. It seems to us, bitter as was the cold upon the lake, that as we enter the court-yard before these enormous wooden erections, strengthened with giant timbers and bound with iron bands, where the ice is stored, the cold becomes more searching and merciless from the proximity of these thousands of tons of crystallized water. There are no windows visible, and nothing that you would call a door. The blank walls and shelving roofs have a repellent air.

__Some of these edifices have an amazing capacity. They hold all the way from twenty thousand to sixty thousand tons. Their walls are double, and the space between is filled with saw dust or other non-conducting material. Only a few boards and loose straw is interposed between the ice and the earth, and one layer is superposed immediately upon the other; but in some of the more improved storage-houses along the Hudson, the earth is coated with tanbark, and there is an additional plank sheathing on the wall packed with tan.

__The cakes are unloaded from the sledges upon a staging. Though these glistening oblongs are very heavy, the men with their long hooks whirl them hither and thither as if they were mere straws.__"It ain't the strength," explains the foreman, who still accompanies us, "it's the knowing the how of it. Put Samson himself up there on that staging for the first time, and tell him to spread himself on those cakes, and I'll venture he'd ask for an unlimited vacation after half an hour's work, besides busting half the cakes, barking his own shins, and smashing the toes of everybody around.

Ice has got to be coaxed; you can't drive it. If you set yourself to make it go one way, it'll be surely go the other; and if you use it rough, look out for legs! For it's bound to get square. But just you tickle it up a bit with your hook, kind of advise it to go the way you want, as if you were anxious for its best interests, and, bless you! You can send it spinning twenty yards wit a twist of your little finger. Just look there. See how that cake runs along, as if it knew where it was to go and was ready to oblige."

__This load, our friend informs us, weighs seven thousand pounds, - three and a half tons; but then, as the foreman says, "sledding is a heap sight easier than wheeling."__The route from the lake to the storage-houses is between dreary-looking sheds and forbidding fences. It is altogether a depressing aspect. Broken blocks of ice, perhaps the evidences of previous disasters to sled-loads, strew the discolored and frozen track.

__As the cakes slide across the staging from the sledges, they are gripped, put into a sling, and hoisted by an ordinary pulley tackle drawn by a team. Up go the masses with a creaking and groaning of blocks; the cake is disengaged and disappears within the dark recesses; the horses back and the sling comes down for another load; and so the hoisting and lowering goes on unremittingly all day.

__The Foreman listens with what seems to us an envious air as we tell him that we have seen ice-houses near the metropolis where the ice was drawn up by inclined plane by steam power and conveyed by other planes, ascending or descending, to all portions of the building, with lightning-like rapidity, so that gangs of twenty men, working vigorously, were scarce able to settle the cakes in place so swiftly did they arrive.__"Well," he observes, with a sigh, " we ain't come to that yet up here. But one thing I can tell you: steam h'isting don't make prime ice; no more do patent fixin's. And we've got prime ice, if we do have to store it by hand and horse-power.

New York's a great place, I allow, and it's got nigh about everything, I reckon; but it ain't got the climate to make first-class, A No. 1, gilt edged, no discount ice."__Having thus relieved his feelings he smiles good-naturedly, and, as if fearing he had wounded our local pride, adds:__"New York air about the center of creation, I'm bound to admit. My nephew Jabez Stephens spent a month there once, and ever since he won't wear nothin' but store clothes. He says a visit to New York is a 'liberal education' ; though after all he can't spell for shucks."

We are now in the ice-house itself. What a gloomy place! And what a deathlike chill strikes to the vitals from those frozen mountains on either hand, upon which the feeble rays of the outer day, finding their way in at the door, glint and sparkle with a weird lustre, such as we are told gleams about an arctic "pack."__We are glad to escape into an intermediate space between two buildings, across which runs a bridge-like gutter, along which men are skidding the ice. Propelled by men with hooks, the heavy cakes are sliding in quick succession with a rumbling noise.

__What manner of men are these that labor in shirt sleeves in those regions whose breath is vaporous ice, where, warmly clad as we are, the very flesh seems quivering upon our bones? Yet yonder robust fellow pauses to pass his arm across his perspiring forehead. And here comes another, wet from head to foot and trailing water after him at every step, - a trail which freezes almost as it falls! As he approaches the foreman he shows his white teeth in a broad smile.__"What's come to you, Joshua Smart?" asks our guide. "Ye look a bit damp."__"Yas, some so, boss," replies the newcomer. "Fell into the consarned canal. Got under the ice, too, and mighty nigh about tuckered out afore they pulled me up."

__"Well," says the foreman, "you must be a blamed fool not to know enough to keep out of the drink where ye've made your living since you were a shaver. Go home and get some dry duds on; and look you, Joshua, don't stop to gab on the way, or you might get cold.

__Joshua Smart departed with a loud slapping of sodden trousers; and presently, having seen all there was to see, we heartily thanked the foreman and made our exit in turn, highly gratified with the result of our expedition, but, at the same time, well pleased to return to a rousing fire of New England hickory logs, and a substantial New England supper which was eaten with appetite wholly unsectional, concluding with a plunge into a billowy New England feather bed, and the dreamless slumber which falls to the lot of the just and the tired.

Alvaro Adsit

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