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History: The Business of Harvesting Ice in Wakefield

Wakefield's lakes have long been acknowledged as the town’s most important natural resources. Beginning in 1849, however, they were also an economic resource. The harvest of ice became an important part of the local economy.

The idea for harvesting ice as a commercial product is credited to Frederick Tudor, a Bostonian, whose first large scale sale of harvested ice was made in 1805 when he shipped 130 tons of ice to Martinique. In 1817, Tudor’s first commercial icehouse was established in 1817 on Fresh Pond in Cambridge. The industry was initially hampered by the difficulty of hauling tons of ice by ox carts, but with the coming of railroads, these difficulties were eased. Suddenly, many of the lakes on the east side of Massachusetts became opportunities for savvy investors; their ice was recognized as a commodity for international trade. By the 1850s, twelve different companies in and around Boston were formed to participate in the harvest and sale of ice.

Wakefield’s ice industry was born in 1849, when the Quannapowitt Railroad Company was organized in order to move ice from storage on the shores of the Lake to the main line of the railroad. One of the organizers of this venture was an agent for the New England Ice Company, which was probably responsible for the construction of the town’s first icehouse, on the western shore of the Lake. By 1855, 27,000 tons of ice was harvested from the town’s two lakes for an estimated value of $13,500, employing 20 men in this capacity. The town of Wakefield (then still named South Reading) was the fourth largest source of commercial ice in Middlesex County.

Originally, the ice in the Boston area’s lakes was harvested for sale overseas, and shipped to the southern hemisphere. In the 1870s, however, people began to see ice as a commodity that could be sold locally.  At first, the main purchasers were hotels and restaurants and meat packers, but gradually, as municipal water supplies diminished the use of deep wells for cool water and food storage, individual homes and institutions saw the benefit of on-site ice storage. To accommodate the demand, more icehouses were built.   The Boston Ice Company, which had harvested ice from Quannapowitt from the 1850s, was joined by local dealer John G. Morrill, who had an icehouse on Spaulding Street by 1878.  People’s Ice Company also had a plant, and four different individual local dealers were engaged in the business of delivering ice to local homes.

Alonzo Colson, who grew up in Wakefield in the 1880s had fond memories of the harvest of ice:  “By the harvesting of ice, many winter jobs were provided.  ‘Twas quite a sight to see perhaps four hundred men scattered hither and yon across the cold, white ice field. To a person on shore, the ice workers looked like midget men barely moving in aimless ways.  They all wore creepers or caulks on their boots and on windy days they leaned into the icy blasts. Horses by the score grated along on sharpened shoes… Accidents happened. Men fell in, were fished out and dried out in the boiler-room; horses went in and made a mess of everything, even calling out the Fire Department and a detachment of police.”

The ice industry flourished in Wakefield, with a variety of large and small concerns harvesting ice from both Lake Quannapowitt and Crystal Lake.   Local publications carried ads from the ice dealers, like this one, from John G. Morrill: 

 

“ICE! ICE! ICE!

Families, Hotels and Stores daily supplied with best quality

of Ice, in any quantity and at lowest rates. Orders left at post office

will receive prompt attention.

Also wholesale and retail dealer in

WOOD AND BUNDLE HAY.”

 

In 1890, Morrill purchased Hartshorne’s Meadow and, with J. Reed Whipple, erected a small icehouse at the southwest corner of the lake in order to supply ice to Whipple’s Boston hotel.  Morrill-Atwood eventually sold this “meadow plant” to the Porter-Milton Ice Company.  This plant and its icehouses were destroyed in a 1929 fire that devoured the buildings, whose sawdust and cork-filled walls were particularly susceptible to fire.  The only building left standing was the old Hartshorne House itself, which had been in use as a tenement for icehouse workers.  (The house would be purchased by the town on the very eve of the Great Depression.)   

By the first decade of the twentieth century, commercial refrigeration had diminished the need for cut ice, leading to the eventual demise of most of the ice companies. The remains of the Morrill-Atwood Company were sold in 1926 to Albert Anderson, who would eventual install electrical ice-making equipment. The company was purchased in 1946 by the Metropolitan Ice Company, which used its buildings only for storage. The last vestige of an ice industry building remained on Spaulding Street until 1988, when it was condemned by the Town of Wakefield, and demolished, after the building was documented by the Wakefield Historical Commission.  

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