Ice Age days on Lake Erie

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Louis Eberly loads ice in 1915 for the Carroll Brothers Grocery in Lakeside. Photo courtesy of Lakeside Heritage Society.

By Linda Huber, Lakeside Heritage Society Board Member

Lakeside Heritage Society Director of Operations, Gretchen Curtis, spoke with Danbury fourth grade students in January about winter activities 100 years ago on the ice surrounding the Marblehead Peninsula.  

In the days before electric refrigerators were invented for keeping food and beverages cold, local families used an ice box that really was a box with an ice compartment filled with ice from Lake Erie. With the entire Peninsula surrounded by Lake Erie, residents had a front row seat to the business of harvesting ice. 

During January and February when ice was the thickest, men were employed to harvest the ice in large blocks. Horses were essential to the ice harvesting process. The horses wore shoes with metal cleats as did the men to keep them from slipping. 

The first thing the men did was to hook a wooden plow blade behind horses to scrape snow off the ice.  Another blade with teeth was pulled by horses led by a man to mark a grid pattern on the ice.  The grid pattern guided the men who used one-handed saws to cut ice into large blocks. Depending upon the location of the harvest, the blocks of ice were either loaded onto a horse-drawn wagon using ice tongs as in the photo, or floated like rafts through channels of water to the shoreline. 

Ice boating circa 1940 from the Charles Wolfe collection at the Lakeside Heritage Society.

The wagons loaded with ice blocks were then hauled to a storage house constructed of thick wooden walls or stone. The ice was stacked in layers with each layer covered with saw dust so they would not stick together. 

During summer and fall, the Ice Man would load his horse-drawn wagon and walk through neighborhoods announcing “Ice for sale, ice for sale.”  Residents would use an ice sign displayed in a window telling the delivery man how big an ice block to deliver. 

Based on the window sign indicating the desired pounds (12, 25, 50 or 100), a block would be weighed, carried to the house and placed in the kitchen ice box.  Carroll’s Grocery in Lakeside and other markets typically requested 100-pound blocks. 

The natural ice from the lake was used only to chill food and beverages in the ice box.  It was not used in glasses to chill beverages since natural ice was exposed to animal waste during the harvest.

The ice harvesting business began to melt away around 1910 with the invention of equipment that made pure ice.  By the 1930s, the development of refrigerators brought an end to large scale ice making.

In addition to the commercial business of ice harvesting, there were other ice activities, including skating, fishing and ice boating. Today, you will occasionally see people out on the ice fishing when winter temperatures are cold enough, but ice boating is rarely seen today on Lake Erie.

Historical photographs show ice boats had flat bottoms with wooden runners. The person would sit or lie on the flat space and operate two sails; the main sail and jib sail. If the wind was right, the boats could reach speeds up to 70 mph. With no braking ability, the boater had to manipulate the sails just right when approaching the shore or another boat. Some talent, indeed!

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