JANUARY JOB

  HARVESTING ICE FROM WHITEFISH LAKE

Harvesting ice.2

in the 1950’s, my father used to put up the ice from Whitefish Lake in January/February. The process lasted about three-four weeks, and was quite exciting to me. I would show up at the site next to the Bay Point Drive-In Grill after school every day, and get in the way while helping. I wasn’t very big, only a young girl, but I was strong and determined.

Dad’s friend Bert would run the Jeep over the thick ice, going clear out on the lake in front of our cabins at Bay Point, plowing snow until it was slick and clear. Bert would then use a big cutting saw with a gas engine that would whine through the ice and slice it almost through. The resulting floats of many cubes still barely attached at the bottom were pushed by men (and sometimes me) with ten-foot poles, standing on the precarious conveyances and propelling them to the one-cube-wide channel, where the rafts were chopped apart with a huge chunker, built like a straightened-out hoe.

The cubes were shoved one at a time up the channel, a good thing for me to do since I didn’t have to stand on the big rafts and risk a dunking while doing it. My dog Lucky, was always right there, barking and jumping around, excited to be in on the show. Dad tried to keep an eye on me but I wanted to be a part of everything going on, and must have been a trial to him. More than once, both the dog and I slipped on the ice and ended up in the channel. Dad or Bert would come by and lift us out by our coats, poor Lucky not always living up to his name. “Go home, Nancy,” they’d say, send me up to our house and bid me stay there, but usually, I’d find the driest clothes I could and come charging back, convinced they really needed my help.

My self-appointed job was to push the huge ice blocks through the narrow channel up to the ‘go-round’ chain that grabbed them and carried them up to the waiting trucks. Each truck had a muscular driver who would latch on to the sliding cubes with a big ice tong, push it over to the front of the truck, and heft it up on top of another by quickly jerking the cube and kicking it with a knee until it slid on top of the bottom cube. The toughest men could stack three, sometimes four, one on top of the other. Each cube weighed two hundred-fifty pounds or more.

When the back of their truck was full, the drivers would jump down and race off, heading for the big fruit warehouses just off Evergreen, east of the viaduct and next to the railroad tracks. There they would do the operation in reverse, with other workers in the warehouse stacking the ice many tiers high with the use of a motorized belt. The filled warehouses were covered in sawdust to keep the ice cold, waiting until the Chicago trains full of meat or fruit from the packing companies came by and took on a load to keep the food fresh to Seattle. The drivers would roar back to the lake to line up for another load, their pay relying on how many loads they could haul, and the weight of each.

At least once a winter, the Jeep or the saw or both ended up in the drink, and sometimes our big two-ton truck got a dunking. A wrecker would creep out onto the ice and snake a cable down to snag the machinery and bring it back up, dripping. The men would dry the carburetor and start the Jeep or truck back up, ready to go back to work. It was an exciting time, full of masculine happenings and with a feeling of accomplishment. I can still feel the minus twenty-degrees cold, the ice on my dripping mittens, freezing feet, my lungs burning. Good memories.

Nan McKenzie, January, 2015

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5 thoughts on “JANUARY JOB

  1. On a of my favorite family pictures is of my favorite Uncle Joe driving a horse drawn ice truck through the streets of Philadelphia headed for the restaurants in Little Italy. And I still remember the ice chest we used to keep food fresh in the cabin on the New Jersey shore. How far we’ve come!

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