On Erie, before ice-fishing craze, ice harvest was the rage
ERIE, Pa. — Gaze onto Presque Isle Bay these days and you’ll likely see legions of ice fishermen, huddled in shelters, enjoying their favorite winter activity.
From the 1880s to the late 1920s, Presque Isle Bay in winter was inhabited by a different lot of outdoors types — scores of polers, plowmen, feeders, packers and foremen.
In those days, January through the end of February was the season for harvesting ice from the frozen bay in an annual rite known as “The Cut.”
In the pre-electric refrigeration era, commercial ice companies and fishing companies routinely harvested ice for year-round consumer consumption and preservation of perishable items.
Commercial fishing operations in Erie consumed a good portion of ice harvested annually.
From about 1890 to 1940, there were about 14 commercial fish houses in Erie, and scores of independent fisheries, according to Jerry Skrypzak, 75, president of Save Our Native Species (S.O.N.S.) of Lake Erie, a fishing advocacy group, and co-author of three books on Erie history.
“When the ice harvesting was at its peak, Erie was doing a lot of fishing,” Skrypzak said. “In the early 1900s, the Erie fishing houses were catching millions of pounds of fish each year just from Lake Erie. They needed the ice and the ice houses to freeze it.”
A Feb. 14, 1905, article in the Erie Evening Herald newspaper heralded that winter’s ice harvest as “a godsend to a number of men who are out of work at this particular season, and the wages earned assist materially in tiding many families through this winter.”
Erie’s Union Ice Company that year cut and gathered 25,000 tons of ice. The Mutual Ice Company harvested 12,000 to 15,000 tons, according to the paper. More than 500 men were employed by the ice and fish companies for at least two weeks during the harvest.
In 1905, a poler – those who pushed the large ice blocks through the channels – earned $1.75 a day. Plowmen were paid $2 per day, feeders $2.25 per day and packers and foremen $2.50 per day.
Shifts could last 10 hours.
“You didn’t have someone on the radio saying, ‘It’s not safe today to go out on the ice,'” said Erie historian Debbi Lyon, 52, a circulation clerk in the Blasco Memorial Library’s Heritage Room and author of two books on Wesleyville history. “You were at your own peril. It was very physical work.”
Ice was harvested primarily in the bay. Ice thickness could range from 6 inches to more than 12 inches.
On Jan. 16, 1917, the Erie Daily Times reported an ice thickness of 8 inches on the bay and 1 foot of snow on the ice, which meant the additional work of clearing snow before cutting could begin.
Union Ice Company and Mutual Ice Company were two of the largest Erie-based commercial ice operations at that time, along with plenty of smaller and independent companies.
The Keystone Fish Company, Booth Fisheries Company and the Lake Erie Fish Company also were annual major players in the ice harvesting bonanza.
In February 1919, the Erie Daily Times reported that ice companies near Chautauqua Lake in Chautauqua County, New York, were harvesting 10 inches to 11 inches of clear blue ice – “the finest obtained in several years” – according to then-Findley Lake, N.Y., resident Dell Lewis.
Ice harvesting also occurred at Conneaut Lake.
When Erie’s annual ice harvest began, anyone at or near the Presque Isle Bay shoreline would have witnessed a panoramic view of men, teams of horses and equipment, including buck saws, littered across the ice.
“You would have seen channels cut,” Lyon said. “The men likely would have been using a manual saw, and there would have been somebody with a pole pushing that ice toward the shoreline. It was very physical, demanding work. They were working as hard as they could to harvest as much ice as they could. You didn’t know if the sun was going to come up the next day, or temperatures would warm up, and start melting it.”
Once the huge ice blocks were cut, men would push them along channels on the bay toward shore. Men with giant grappling hooks would pull the large ice blocks from the water.
Some ice companies at the foot of Chestnut Street would place the ice blocks on large conveyors near shoreline boathouses. Conveyors would transport the ice to ice houses at the top of the bluff.
It was big business, even though it might have raised health issues.
“They were taking ice out of the bay before the city had a wastewater treatment plant,” Lyon said.
The length of an annual ice harvest in the Erie region depended on the weather and how quickly the companies filled their warehouses.
“They would have to take that stuff up to a warehouse – some building with real thick walls, and they just packed and wrapped the ice in straw and hay,” Lyon said. “They would use that all year long for cold beer, cold milk, and for things that are going to spoil quickly. That ice would last all winter, spring, right up to the time it comes around again. For those big chunks, they were in warehouses that had really thick walls that were well insulated.”
Consumers used the ice to store food, milk, beer and any other perishable items in ice boxes long before electricity powered in-home refrigerators that began making their debut in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lyon said.
“They needed a lot of ice for a lot of reasons – for home use, the railroad cars and businesses,” Skrypzak said. “Ice was in demand and there was nothing else available.”
Milk companies such as Sanida and Sterling used the ice blocks in their horse-drawn wagons to keep the milk frigid during deliveries.
“I know it was pretty dangerous to have those big blocks of ice in the wagons because, if something happens and you have to stop quickly, that stuff pushes forward, so you could get crushed by it,” Lyon said. “There weren’t really many safety measures in place.”
Blocks of ice were delivered to homes throughout the city. Residents could place a placard in their window showing the size of the ice block they needed. Ice blocks typically were cut in increments of 25, 50, 75 and 100 pounds.
Commercial ice companies also had small buildings, or ice stations, throughout the city, Lyon said.
“Parents would send children there with a wagon,” she said. “They would pay for a block of ice and then lug it home in the wagon.”
Ice harvesting’s economic glory run began to melt away starting in the late 1920s, when refrigerated “cabinets” powered by electricity put the longstanding harvest’s future on thin ice.
General Electric began to manufacture its Monitor Top “refrigerating mechanisms” in 1927 at its Schenectady, New York, plant, but in 1928, the manufacture of its refrigerators was transferred to Erie, according to the Journal of Erie Studies.
GE, in a 1929 Erie newspaper advertisement, proclaimed that its all-steel refrigerator “makes it safe to be hungry 365 days in the year.”
“It’s good for moms because now they can put the milk in the refrigerator, they don’t have to monitor the flow of water out of their ice box, so it’s beneficial in most cases, unless you were that ice worker, but that would only be temporary work,” Lyon said.