In the small town of South Bristol (pop. 892), the Thompson Ice House Harvesting Museum is preserving the old way ice made the journey from Maine ponds and lakes to kitchens, restaurants, and warehouses all over the world.
Today, the idea of “harvesting” blocks of ice from frozen ponds and lakes, then storing them in sawdust and straw for months at a time, might seem a little crazy. Ice is just ice – in bags at the grocery store or popping out of little plastic trays. It wasn’t always this way.
The Thompsons represent a forgotten industry known as the “Ice Trade”. For a hundred years commercial ice was predominantly a New England industry, almost single-handedly created by a man you might call a 19th century disruptor – Frederick Tudor, known as Boston’s “Ice King”.
Before Tudor in the 1820s, there was no market for commercial ice. Once it took off, harvested ice from New England became commonplace. Eventually the Ice Trade (including smaller suppliers like the Thompsons) enabled large-scale distribution and storage of meat, fruits and vegetables, at the same time revolutionizing the fishing industry.
In 1826, five generations of Thompsons ago, Asa Thompson cut his first blocks from Thompson Pond. Initially it was just for the family, until local farmers and neighbors wanted a piece of the frozen action too. Word of Thompson Pond ice quickly spread, and seeing that he had a valuable commodity in his back yard, Asa was soon harvesting ice for fisherman, grocery stores, and home ice boxes.
Once electricity made refrigeration possible the Ice Trade slowly faded, and by the 1930s it was mostly a thing of the past. The Thompsons held on for another 50 years, keeping their pond clean and clear in the summer, scraping the snow off in winter, and hauling in the harvest every February. They didn’t close up shop until 1985.
The business may have faded, but the harvest didn’t. In 1987 the Ice House established itself as a non-profit working museum, determined to carry on the tradition of doing it the old way.
Since establishing the Museum, every Sunday of President’s Day weekend the community gathers at Thompson Pond to cut the ice, float the blocks down an ice-free channel, and hoist them up into the ice house. There the ice is packed in layers of straw and sawdust for the rest of the year, staying frozen through the hottest days of summer. In July everyone is invited back for homemade ice cream, hand-cranked with some rock salt and – of course – Thompson Pond ice.
There was a time that New England’s ice supplied the world market, all the way to the West Indies and beyond. Ice may be easier to come by now, but it’s not nearly as much fun.