Refrigeration in the 30’s and early 40’s had a whole different meaning than it does today. What you see here is my father and a helper shoveling sawdust into the open doorway of our Ice House. An ice house was about the only method for keeping foods cool in the summer.
You didn’t just plug it in, that’s for sure. Dad had begun the previous year by constructing the building, a wooden structure about 10′ x 12′ in size. This was then partly filled with sawdust hauled from the local sawmill or gathered up from around the buzz saw where we cut firewood. A door was put on and there it waited until the Paddle River, a half mile north of our farm, was frozen to it’s maximum thickness.
When the ice was considered “good for cutting”, which Uncle Glen told me was in March just before it started to get water on top, Dad began preparations for the day of ice hauling. One of the most important of these was to shoe the horses with ice calks so they would not slip on the river ice or on the hill as they pulled the heavy load of ice up towards home. These were special horse shoes fitted with tapered metal studs that projected down from the bottom of the shoe. The horse and buggy age’s version of the snow tire.
The last step was to prepare the ice house to receive the ice. The deep layer of sawdust filling the ice house was shoveled to the outside edges and packed against the walls with the extra piled at one end, ready to cover the ice as it was laid in.
The day of cutting ice for the ice house was a family affair. Since the O’Shea homestead was the closest to the river it became the base of operations. Grandpa and Grandma Kezar and whatever uncles and aunts were around came to lend a hand and make sure that everybody got the ice they needed for the coming summer. Grandma would bring some food and Mum would be busy the day before baking and getting ready for company. Sometimes they would also use the day for sewing while the men folk cut and loaded the ice.
Grandpa had an ice saw for cutting the blocks of ice from the river and tongs for lifting the blocks after they were cut. Uncle Glen described it like this:
“It was a hell of a lot of work to get a load of ice. You would take the sleigh or wagon right down to where you were cutting the blocks and once you had a hole you would start cutting the blocks. Ropes were put on the handles of the tongs and then two men could lift on the block.
You would get the block bobbing in the water and on about the third pull, with the water helping, lift it out onto the surrounding ice. You had to be real careful not to slip and end up in the hole. The blocks were cut about two feet by two feet depending on the thickness of the ice and seven to eight blocks was a load. It was lots of work, but the only way we had to make ice-cream or keep things cool in those days.
We got ice at Alan Lewis’ place too. It was on the Paddle River flats on the way to Mayerthorpe. You just crossed the river and went to the top of the hill, then went a half mile east to his place and he was right down on the river. It was easier to get ice there because you just drove onto the river. ”
The whole adventure was exciting for me as a young child, but the part that fascinated me was watching the big teams pull the heavy loads up “The Big Hill” as it was called. The driver usually walked along beside and coached his team up the steep incline. He had to protect his team from injury by being aware of the weight of the ice and what he could expect of his horses. An additional person walked along on each side of the load with blocking in hand to throw behind a wheel or runner in case a horse lost it’s footing or tired out on the way to the top.
We milked cows and separated the milk to obtain the cream, which was cooled in the ice house. The cream was collected in an eight gallon cream can which sat on the ice and was buried to it’s shoulders in the sawdust. Each week the cream was hauled to Mayerthorpe and shipped by train to the creamery in Sangudo. This was one source of income for a homesteading family. The skim milk was used to feed the young calves and the remainder was given to the hogs to keep them healthy.
The ice house was a beautiful place on a hot summer day. It was one of my favorite jobs was to carry the cream, or whatever else needed cooling, out to the ice house. There was about 18 inches of sawdust on top of the ice and I would sit, wiggle my toes down near the ice and luxuriate in the coolness. Of course if I was caught I would get a lecture; “That ice has to last all summer and there you are wasting it!”