It was a nifty little operation that few of us ever knew about. It serves as a perfect example of how cultural artifacts bite the dust, items such as typewriters and telephones attached to jacks on a wall (what?!).
Back in the early part of the 20th century, alongside the spring-fed pond called Crystal Lake – hang on a minute here! This Cali girl has always enjoyed a private chortle at New Englanders granting the name of “lake” to a body of water barely bigger than a swimming pool. Out west, when we say “lake” we mean Tahoe, Big Bear and Salt [Lake], although even westerners get grandiose at times. Salton Sea? Really?
Point is, Crystal Lake used to be the site of an antediluvian money-maker known as ice harvesting. Each winter the product was extracted as ice reached a thickness of seven inches. Word went out that help was needed. Of the 100 Vineyard men who applied, only 50 were chosen, and these were the heftiest and beefiest and least likely to wimp out: For 35-cents an hour, ice jackers worked through the bruising cold, bundled up in layers of their heaviest woolens. Should a foot go under the ice and a pant-leg be soaked, well, it was up to the worker whether he wished to keep on hauling ice or give up and go home to warm jammies and an armchair near the fire. I know what I’d choose!
You can read all about this in a charming book, “Reflections In Crystal Lake” by Ruth S. Nerney, published in 1976. You’ll find it in your local Island library.
So, the first procedure was a horse and wagon dragging a heavy tool to rake the ice in a big-size gingham pattern. Next workers applied themselves with hand-saws to cut those markings into separate 35-inch chunks. Men with pikes then floated those babies through a canal to the ice house. A horse-powered tread-mill carried the ice up and away to higher and higher tiers of the storage facility.
Saw dust on the floor provided the first block of insulation. Then each wall-to-wall layers of ice got sheathed with rye straw. Whazzit, rye straw? It's used to keep the cubes from melting clear through the heat of summer.
It took four days to load up 2,000 tons of ice. Hmmm, eight hours of daily labor, at 35-cents an hour, times four, comes to $10.20. Nice work if you can get it! (Please don’t bother to double-check my math – it’s probably wrong.)
Sadly, the hurricane of 1944 destroyed the Ice House of Crystal Lake for all time.
Here’s what happened: Saltwater from the storm got dumped into the pond. The usual harvesting took place over the winter, but in April, the owner, Mr. Pease, opened the facility to find himself staring at one solid mass of ice. Put him in mind of the Matterhorn.
Pease waited a good 10 years before he started to demobilize the building, whereupon, out of nowhere, or so it seemed, Hurricane Carol whacked those walls down in a couple of hours. This in and of itself provdes a good Yankee lesson: Never hesitate to postpone a task to which Mother Nature will eventually put paid.
So what, you may wonder, particularly you young gangstas with iPhones reflected in your irises, you cuties who learned history in school all the way back to pre-cell phone, pre-laptop, pre-PinkBerry, pre-everything days of 1992. What was ice harvesting for? Who needed slabs of frozen pond water, for rappin’ out loud?
According to some of my aged relatives, in memories spanning the 1920s and the 1930s, guys with horse-drawn wagons pulled up to the backs of my then-young relatives’ houses, and delivered glacial blocks the size of beer coolers to their parents’ appropriately-named ice boxes. These cabinets had hollow walls lined with tin or zinc, insulated with cork. The giant ice thwocked down a chute and into the top where air circulated the chill down to perishable food items.
And when did refrigerators come along to shut down these fine businesses such as the Ice House of Crystal Lake? Well, believe it or not, in the 11th century, a Persian chemist named Ibn Sina invented the refrigerator coil. In 1748, a model fridge designed by an engineer named William Collen was demonstrated at the U of Glasgow.
It wasn’t until 1913 that a domestic fridge was developed. It required a bunch of assembly, with a big noisy machine set up in the basement. Also, the price was prohibitive. In 1922 a homeowner could purchase a refrigerator for $714. (That's a lot of hours at 35-cents per). In contrast, a Model-T Ford cost a mere $450 and, as you may well imagine, most people of that era plumped for the car.
It wasn’t until the years following World War II that the refrigerator as a household staple came into being.
It took a while longer for folks on Martha’s Vineyard to get off the pond ice gold standard, You know what those old Yanks and spartan Boston summer folks were like. Their homes were more like camps, in fact, they called them camps! Well past the days of Hurricane Carol, ice boxes were still in use; men still chopped and cut the ice, most of it barged over from Rhode Island.
Who needs refrigerators anyway? Oh, right! Ice cream does! Yeah, refrigerators are here to stay. And we all require some place to stash the extra PinkBerry. For those of you who never get off the rock, PinkBerry is a trendy frozen yogurt franchise in LA and NY.