Harvesting ice the old way

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Ice was a precious commodity in the old days. There were no convenience stores at which to purchase bags of ice, nor were there refrigerators that spit ice cubes out the front door. Area dude ranches, with a high demand for ice during the summer dude season, had to cut their ice during the winter and store it for summertime use in dude cocktails.

The work was cold and wet and required a lot of labor, more than available at any one ranch. It was yet another instance when ranch neighbors “neighbored up” to help each other out, like when they helped each other to gather and brand in the spring and gather and ship in the fall which many still do.

When the ice on the nearby pond got thick enough, about 18 inches, the neighbors for called for help. On the appointed day, at first light, all assembled with the required equipment. Most of it was homemade, like ice crampons to strap on boots to keep from slipping on the ice and iron bars with serrated ends to break ice blocks apart. Of course, ice tongs were essential pieces of equipment.

At one ranch, in the 1950s, the ice was cut with a huge circular blade rigged up on an old Ford truck chassis and motor which was mounted on skids. The motor operated the saw blade. A handle was installed so that the whole assemble could be pulled across the ice to make a series of parallel cuts about 18 inches apart. Then it was dragged the other way to intersect the first cuts to create rows of giant ice cubes. The saw cut all but about one or two inches of the ice. In the really old days, all this work was done with hand saws.

Then the work got a little precarious. Standing gingerly on the edge of the ice the men used long poles to maneuver the rows of ice blocks to the edge of the cut by the loading ramp where ice chisels and breaker bars were used to break off the individual blocks. Occasionally one of the crew would slip and fall, which usually didn’t hurt much because of all the clothes he wore to keep warm. It could be humorous. An occasional pratfall and near dunking brought out good natured catcalls if the hapless victim wasn’t hurt. The incident would be remembered repeatedly throughout the day. “By gosh, did you see when old Clem busted his butt? That was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Boy, did he make a thump. Well I just never!” (The language would have been saltier than that.)

The next step was to get the blocks into the truck. Ice tongs on a rope were lowered down to the water, clamped on a block, and pulled up a makeshift wooden chute to the loading ramp, then loaded on the truck. The work was wet, especially when a block broke loose from the ice tongs when it was halfway up the chute and careened back down the chute to end in a drenching splash for those at the bottom of the chute. That’s probably why there was always a little whiskey around to help combat the chill.

The trucks took the ice to an ice house, which could be an old barn or shed. Sawdust was used as an efficient insulator. The floor was covered with sawdust on which the first layer of ice was placed. Putting down the first few layers was relatively easy, but as the stack of ice gained in height, the ice blocks had to be pulled upward from the truck to the top of the stack which was about three times as high as the truck. When the ice mountain was complete, sawdust was placed between the sides of the ice wall and the building walls, and the top was covered with sawdust as well. There the ice sat in frozen hibernation in its sawdust coat until it was needed in the summertime.

When ice was needed, it was extracted from its sawdust cocoon, washed and delivered to the dude cabins. Most dudes didn’t really know about the labor involved to produce the tinkling in their drink. But they may have wondered about the occasional piece of sawdust that floated on its surface.



Tom Ringley was re-elected as a county commissioner in 2012. He is the author of four books. Ringley grew up in Sheridan and returned home in 1990 after 27 years as an Air Force officer. He has been involved with the local hospital foundation, the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo and has been the facilities director at the county fairgrounds.

By |November 19th, 2013|

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