Cutting Ice with George Jackett
January 7, 2023
George Jackett with Horse Drawn Ice Saw at Jackett's Pit
Through the 1940s few locals could enjoy the convenience of refrigeration. Most farmers made do without any artificial cooling. As a child growing up Anna May’s family (she later married George) would just put a piece of meat on the clay cellar floor (few had concrete floors) and covered it with a tea towel so the flies would not get at it. “I had three brothers,” she explains, “so having the meat rot was not a problem.” Farmers got together to form a beef ring, so when they butchered an animal they would not end up with too much meat at a time.
Most people who lived in town or near the water had an ice box. It had a compartment on top that would hold a block of ice, which as it melted would drain to a pan at the bottom of the unit. A block of ice would last about three days, which would keep milk and butter cooler than room temperature, but not as cool as a modern refrigerator. When electrification began, ice boxes could be retrofitted with a powered cooling unit on top.
It took a lot of ice to supply all the ice boxes in town. Each winter Jacketts would spend about two months getting in ice, 1200 to 1500 blocks for the village of Fenelon Falls, then move on to help Charlie Gray at Sturgeon Point, the Arscotts at Hickory Beach, Percy Skitch and Roy Kennedy at Thustonia, Gil & Mar Watson (Gil-Mar Lodge), Leslie Frost at Pleasant Point, and at Snug Harbour. They regularly travelled as far as Four Mile Lake and Crystal Lake. George fondly remembers many winters he spent cutting ice with his father, Wilf, and uncle Fred Jackett.
Preparations began long before any ice was cut. Because snow acts as an insulator, the roadway that would be used out onto the ice had to be kept clear, so it would be sure to freeze deep enough to be safe, especially if a truck was being used to haul ice off the lake.
The first step was to take horses and a plow out on the ice to clear an ice field. It could typically be laid out into four large squares, cutting one per day before having to move the elevator. Then a string would be used to draw a straight line across the ice and a perpendicular line was also run. Jacketts built their own ice saw, taking the engine out of a Model T and fitting two large circular blades that would cut to a depth of about 15 inches. The spacing between the blades was adjustable, and it had a guide that would drop into the first cut to make consistent-sized blocks. The water would seep back into the cracks, so they would only score the amount of ice that they could get out before it would refreeze. If it was a cold day, they probably could only score enough for the morning.
The ice was thicker than what the blade could cut, so they had to drill a hole through the ice and cut the last 6 or 8 inches with a handsaw. Once they managed to pry the first row out, they would cut the field into sections of 5 blocks square, then float this iceberg over to the elevator, which lifted the ice up the bank. There would be two or three men cutting out the ice blocks at the foot of the elevator, and two or three men piling it in the ice house. In all it took a crew of 6 to 8 men to cut ice. Where the ice had to be teamed off the lake, two or three teams of horses with sleighs were needed as well. After cutting for the day, the lake would refreeze in the hole that was left overnight, and if it was a cold night they could walk on it by morning.
If they didn’t get all the blocks out by dark, they would have to keep working after supper. One night George and his Dad were at home doing the dishes before he went back out to help, and somehow the truck had slid into the lake. “They were lucky that they didn’t have to swim out of there, because it was black dark,” George recalls. For anyone else, having a truck in the lake in winter would be quite the situation, but the Jacketts had a lot of experience. The made a trail in at the far side of the bay, Gerry Armstrong brought over his Wrecker Truck, they attached the winch truck to another vehicle to ensure that the winch pulled the truck out of the lake, rather than another truck into the lake, and it came right out.
Once they got the blocks of ice up from the lake, they were insulated with sawdust. Early on the blocks were just buried in a great mound of sawdust. Later on, Wilf had a purpose-built ice house. The blocks were kept a foot back from the wall, and each row was covered with sawdust. The insulation worked well enough that the blocks did not noticeably shrink as the year went on. But before they could be sold the sawdust had to be washed off at a spring, which was conveniently nearby. The sawdust was reused, year after year and only had to be topped up for what was washed away at the spring.
Jacketts had two delivery trucks working full time to ensure that everyone received a block of ice every third day. For 25 cents per trip, they would carry in the ice block and put it in the customer’s ice box. 25 cents, of course, was a lot of money back then. By the 1960s most people had an electric deep freeze (as they were then called) and refrigerator, and within a few years the ice business petered out.