COLUMN: Musings of a Simple Country Man

Hobie Morris

The Ice Age

“When the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.” – Old farm wisdom

My beautiful and pioneering wife Lois and I have had many ice recollections in our 38 years of off the grid living in the hills of Brookfield. Since we don’t have a conventional sink drain for our gray water we throw it out from the back door to the right. The size and height of this gradually growing ice mound will indicate in March just how cold our winter has been (we will also discover like dinosaur bones knives and forks that were thrown out in the dark). This year this ice mound has already become quite sizeable.

Inside our lightly insulated mansion, if we don’t put milk, etc., inside our half-century-old tiny propane refrigerator, we will have frozen milk by the next morning. We understand Eskimos have to do the same thing in their Arctic homes. I think you can envision our icy living quite well. Several years ago my always carefully walking Lois happened to slip on a tiny, plate-sized patch of ice on the way to the outhouse. She slipped and broke her arm. When we got home from the hospital the ice patch culprit had disappeared.

We have to contend with icy rural dirt roads many times during a cold winter. One Sunday morning, on the way to church, we hit one long patch of pure ice and our old truck did three or four complete circles, ending on a snow bank heading home, keeping us from a 10 foot drop into a rock strewn, icy cold fast flowing stream. Somehow we got out without help and got to the church on time.

This winter has been very cold. An Amish man needing ice for his small dairy has already harvested 20 inch thick blocks of ice from his pond that he will store in a specially built ice house. Without electricity, the Amish need the ice for all year use and keeping milk cold in the case of this small organic dairy operation.

In many ways our experiences are fairly foreign to the present generation, unless they happen to slip and fall on ice or hit an unexpected patch of black ice with their fast moving automobile. Some people do, of course, ice fish but generally speaking as our ancestors knew it, ice remains mysterious to the vast majority of people in 2018.

Many of your old timer readers may vividly remember when having ice was indispensable. This simple country man, growing up in South Utica after World War II, can still see his family’s kitchen “ice box.” A block of ice was put in a top compartment by the ice delivery man. You indicated by a number (25, 50, 75, 100) correctly put in a front window for the regularly scheduled delivery. Ice was a weekly, year-round necessity. The melting ice water would go into a container (or in a pipe into the basement) that would have to without fail be emptied before overflowing. Mom continually warned us to “keep the ice box door shut” and “don’t keep opening the door looking for something to eat.”

Unnecessary ice box visits speeded up the melting of the ice blocks.

Many people in Utica and elsewhere had similar experiences. Eventually we all could afford an electric refrigerator. The ice man disappeared except for the non-electrified Amish people. I have to admit the electric refrigerator with its light, ice cube tray and hum proved to be a change that we all enjoyed, especially my hard-working housewife mother.

In the spring, there are locally several ice harvests. Such a novelty gives the present generation a brief and simplistic glimpse of a way of life before the arrival of electricity. In many rural areas electrification didn’t come until almost the Second World War. Before that many generations of hard-working country people cut ice to make a few extra dollars or freely helped neighbors. Eventually, the two hand ice saw, thongs and teams of horses pulling a load of ice blocks to a storage shed disappeared from the rural scene.

Farmers needed ice to keep their milk cool before sending the 100 pound cans off to various locations for processing. Our farmer friend Bernie has a small building along Giles Road that was build before the Civil War, that was used in part for drying hops, and the other part to this day contains residues of saw dust used to insulate between large, heavy blocks of ice. The Kraft plant in South Edmeston used great quantities of milk from a large number of local small dairy farms. The products produced there were sent by refrigerated box cars by way of the Unadilla Valley Railroad. To keep these perishable milk products cold the box cars were refrigerated with blocks of locally cut ice. This scene, too, would soon change.

America’s ice age began in and around 1806, when an enterprising Bostonian, Frederic Tudor, began amassing a fortune by cutting blocks of ice from New England frozen lakes, insulating them in saw dust and later shipping them to warmer climates. This proved to be a very profitable business for the next 100 years. Warmer parts of the US became addicted to New England ice. All this would change in 1902, when air conditioning as we know it began. This fascinating story deserves a special “Musing.”

The Ice Age is not forgotten here in the Brookfield hills. And ironically there is always an aspiring businessman like Frederick Tudor, who has an idea to hook on a small iceberg of fresh water and pulling it to arrears in the world where water remains extremely scarce. We do indeed live in a very thirsty world, and it’s getting worse.

Businessman Tudor would only smile at such innovative problem-solving.

Hobie Morris resides in Brookfield and is a simple country man.

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