Before the widespread adoption of refrigeration in the 1930s, natural ice was essential to keep meat and dairy products from spoiling. Ice harvested from ponds and rural lakes in northern states was kept in coolers throughout the year.
Ice cream had a market back then. Families needed it for cold cabinets and coolers in their kitchens, and it allowed meatpackers and producers of other perishables to transport their products greater distances to meet the demands of a growing population.
In 1940, most Americans had refrigerators in their homes. Technology has relegated the old industry to memory.
But the tradition is not completely lost.
Bill Leonard Jr., a retired civil engineer from northeast Pennsylvania, and a group of volunteers have been harvesting ice in the Pocono town of Tobyhanna for 28 years.
Leonard is a wealth of knowledge on the practice of ice harvesting which reached its peak in the late 19th century.
“It was also known as the frozen water trade and employed some 90,000 people working in icehouses capable of storing up to 250,000 tonnes of blocks of ice,” he said. “It was a huge industry for a lot of our fathers and grandfathers who all worked on the ice.”
Leonard and his fellow historians, many of whom come from ice-fishing families, spend a full day in mid-winter on Tobyhanna’s Millpond #1 cutting 30-50 tons of ice to store in a traditional icehouse built in 1993 for a bicentenary celebration of the canton.
Leonard’s father, the late Bill Sr., was an ice fisherman who collected vintage tools of the trade. The young Leonard, now 65, has the same love of the industry and keeps that history alive at conferences throughout the year.
“Harvesting ice from ponds here was an important local industry in the early 20th century from a lake formed when the Tobyhanna and Lehigh Lumber Company dammed Tobyhanna Creek to form what was called Millpond #1 near their sawmill,” he explained.
Leonard’s father worked as an ice chunk boy as a teenager. His job was to reject the imperfect 300-pound blocks of ice as they ascended a steam-powered ramp to the 60,000-ton capacity cooler. The one million cubic foot icehouse built in 1907 was destroyed by fire in 1938. At its peak, harvest ice blocks were sold locally and shipped to the Tobyhanna area throughout the year. The last icehouses in the area were in the nearby towns of Gouldsboro and Warnertown and remained in operation until the early 1950s.
When the Township of Coolbaugh in Monroe County was planning its bicentennial celebration in 1993, Bill Sr. decided to build a small cooler so that an authentic harvest could be part of the 1994 celebration.
“My father was thrilled to re-teach the younger generation how their fathers and grandfathers harvested before they were born on a pond where they ice skated,” Leonard said.
Elder Leonard, along with a group of friends, built the cooler for the event. “Unfortunately,” his son said, “my father died of a fatal heart attack while working on the 40ft ramp moving ice from the pond into the cooler at the age of 68. “
Bill Jr., along with extended family and friends, found his father’s plans for the ramp and managed to have it built for the ice harvest and the event has been going on every year since.
The 2022 harvest, which took place on January 29, was, according to Leonard, carried out under some of the most difficult conditions ever with sub-freezing temperatures and a northeast that brought a blizzard to East cost. Despite the weather, some 200 volunteers turned out for the 29th Modern Tobyhanna Ice Event, harvesting 33 tons of ice.
Volunteers used hand tools exclusively for the first 10 years of the event, until they acquired a vintage gas-powered 1919 Gifford Wood ice saw with a 30-inch blade.
“You have to use a crank to start it,” Leonard said, “and in cold weather it can really be a chore.”
The Tobyhanna ice cream crop relies on a core group of around 24 men whose fathers or grandfathers had worked in the industry. Families and visitors to the area lend a hand, cutting large strips of ice into small 160-pound blocks, called cakes, then floating them down the conveyor belt. There, with a system of rope and ice hooks, the blocks are lifted up a ramp to storage with the power of a tractor or farm horse. The stored ice is used by area residents for picnics and parties in the spring and summer.
The job isn’t much different than it was 100 years ago, Leonard points out, other than the size of the operation. When harvesting and selling blocks of ice was a business, he said it was cold enough that the entire 60-acre No. 1 Pond was harvested twice during the year and that the operation employed nearly 150 full-time people in the winter to prepare and load the ice daily. for deliveries along the East Coast.
“A hundred years ago,” he said, “chunks of ice called floats were cut 30 feet by 50 feet and were tagged and freed from the solid ice of the surrounding pond, then floated near the cooler.”
Workers then cut the float into 22-by-32-inch blocks using a tool called a spud so they would fit snugly into the storage.
“It was hard, backbreaking work,” he said.
Today, a wagon museum near the icehouse houses Leonard’s collection of ice tools.
“It doesn’t matter how thick the ice was last year, this year, or the next, or how many cakes of ice cream or tons of ice went into the cooler, or how well the equipment was working,” says Leonard , “what is most important to all of us is that we carry on an age-old tradition and create new memories for the next generation, who we hope will keep the tradition alive.