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Ice through the ages

Ice through the ages, November/December 2017 Cape Cod LIFE |

Four men out on the ice during a freeze in the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association

It typically took up to two weeks of cold weather to produce harvestable pond ice. Fortunately, the winters seem to have been colder in those days, and in fact there were many winters when local harbors froze over, and there are even tales of Cape Cod Bay and Nantucket Sound becoming jammed with ice. Once the pond ice was thick enough to harvest, a crew assembled to saw it into blocks, which were then pushed ashore to be stored in the icehouse. The ice was packed right up to the peak of the building and insulated with sawdust or salt hay to reduce melting. With any luck, 75 percent of the ice might survive into the warmer months to preserve food and to chill summer drinks.

Not all pond ice was harvested, but instead used for the enjoyment of villagers and visitors alike. Ice skating was a popular activity during the 19th century, and the local newspapers of that era were sprinkled with mentions of skating parties at village ponds. The Harwich Independent newspaper of February 19, 1895 reported, “During the past week the young people, and some of the older ones as well, enjoyed skating and ice-boating on Long Pond,” indicating that some 150 people had been on the ice surface the previous Saturday.

Of all the winter activities on local ponds and lakes, perhaps the most popular with the locals was ice boating. According to newspaper accounts, the activity was all the rage during the 1870s through the 1890s, and continued well into the 20th century. Essentially, an ice boat was a sailboat designed like a sleigh, with a sail to capture the breezes and with runners to glide the craft across the ice. An article in the January 28, 1879 issue of the Harwich Independent, reporting on ice sailing activities at East Harwich, described the boats with admiration: “They are built in various shapes and rigged in many different ways; some have sails in one shape and some in another; each is rigged to suit the Captain. Some are on three irons and some on four, the fourth being placed in the middle of the runner plank, so that when the boat is going ahead there is but three irons on the ice; this we think is an improvement going windward. It is a pleasing sight to see them on the pond when the ice is smooth, going like meteors.”

Although racing was a popular use of ice boats, many times larger crafts could comfortably seat a half dozen or more passengers for leisurely jaunts. In some cases, they were used to transport cargo, such as firewood across Long Pond in Harwich. Ice boats coasted across such frozen bodies of water as Long Pond in South Yarmouth, Scargo Lake in Dennis, Kelly’s Pond in West Dennis, Cobb’s Pond in Brewster, and Gull Pond in Wellfleet, among many other locations across the Cape. The ponds and lakes in the town of Barnstable were home to a number of ice boats, including crafts that belonged to W. D. Lewis of Cotuit and Burchard V. Kelley of Centerville.

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