When Cape winters centered on frozen ponds
During a Cape Cod winter, chilling ocean waves curl upon frozen beaches, ocean effect snows highlight salt marshes, and smooth glass sheets encase kettle ponds. This peninsula in its wintry state becomes a whole other world, like a crystalline ice sculpture created with a salt spray chisel.
Interestingly, the Cape winters of two centuries ago were alive with outdoor activities that embraced the icy whims of nature. Like something out of Currier & Ives, the Cape’s quiet byways and snowy landscapes were ideal for sleighing, a popular excursion back in the 19th century. Cape hills were frequented by the young, and the not-so-young, for sledding and tobogganing. And local ponds and lakes were busy spots for a variety of wintertime activities, ranging from ice fishing and ice harvesting to ice skating and ice boating.
It is said there are 365 ponds and lakes across Cape Cod—one for each day of the year. Many of these are kettle ponds, created at the end of the last ice age when large blocks of ice formed depressions in the sandy soil and then melted. In winter, during those frigid Januarys and Februarys of yore, these bodies of water froze to produce six, eight, 10, or more inches of ice to the delight of those looking to fill their icehouses and to those looking to glide upon their glazed surfaces.
In the days before refrigerators, the ice box was the method of keeping food fresh during warm months. The local iceman made deliveries along his route to those customers displaying a card in their window indicating how many pounds of ice were needed. Toward that end, January and February were the months to fill the icehouse with blocks cut from the nearby pond in order to satisfy the demand come May and June.
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.
Long Pond at Pleasant Lake in Harwich was the frozen venue for a host of winter activities, from ice skating parties to ice sailing junkets to ice boat races. The races were particularly popular, attracting hundreds of spectators, some from as far away as Boston, with crafts sailing across the ice sheet at speeds of “more than one mile per minute.” One regatta in January 1881 attracted 500 people. In February of that year, the Independent reported, “The train arrived with 200 people from Hyannis and way stations to join in the sports, which were various; such as sailing, skating and dancing…the dancing was conducted by Alexander’s Band, 3 pieces, which is a voucher for a good time.” On one Saturday afternoon there were 27 ice boats on Long Pond, all vying to be the fastest.
The turn of the 20th century saw a continued interest in winter activities. In February 1901, the Independent stated that at Harwich Port, “Skating and ice boating has taken up all the spare time of the young people this past week.” Yet, the sport of ice boating was not without its danger. In March 1902, the newspaper reported that at South Harwich “Harry Loveland is still confined to the house from an injury received while ice boating.” The very next year, in January 1903, Willie Nickerson nearly drowned while riding an ice boat at East Dennis.
In the 1930s there was a renewal of ice boating at Long Pond in Harwich, which continued into the 1940s. With the country now at war, in January 1942 the newspaper reported nostalgically on the activities at South Dennis: “During the recent cold spell young folks enjoyed skating on the old Creek – especially at night when the bonfires blazed. Some of us recall the days when ice boats were on Fresh Pond.”
With the conclusion of the war, the Pleasant Lake area of Harwich was once again home to ice boat races, thus keeping the winter sport alive as skippers competed to be the fastest. But the days of ice skating parties, bonfires, dances and sleigh rides were now of a bygone era, and the train no longer arrived to unload spectators by the hundreds to watch the races.
Even today, as the cold wind blows, and the temperature drops, and the snow flies, with a little imagination one can almost see the ghosts of former ice boats speeding across the glassy surface of Long Pond in Harwich, “going like meteors.”