Ice harvest

Ontario’s Ice Harvest History

Our mysterious island barn is a legacy of Ontario’s historic Ice Harvest industry.

Island Barn Mystery

Our island cottage is located in a bay dotted with many other small islands in a large lake in Ontario’s near north. We were confused by the existence of a small old barn on the property. It appears to have been used to house an animal – with a small stall on one side, and a ladder to a small hayloft above.

This is fishing country. Cottage vacation country……. Why on earth would someone have kept an animal in a barn on a rocky landscape in a lake? It was a mystery to us.

Island cottage
Our beautiful island(s)

The barn in recent years had been been used to store old projects on one side – a boat motor awaiting repair and some bits of plumbing and galvanized pots and buckets. The other side (the stall) was filled to the rooftop with old wood – flooring, panelling and who knows what from renovations past in the cottage. It was a mess!

Shed contents
The scary shed contents – workshop side is now almost empty

We spent the first summer disposing of and reusing items from the workshop side of the barn and another building nearby – but haven’t yet gotten to the enormous pile of wood. We have so many cut and fallen trees to dispose of that the barn pile will have to wait.

The old island barn
The old island barn – with rotten doors

Who knows if we will keep the barn. But still – why would an island need a barn?

One day a neighbour stopped in and let us know that horses had been kept on our little island many years ago in support of the local Ice Trade. Ice was harvested in the winter from our lake.

The old island barn

Ontario’s Ice Trade

Ontario, with its cold and snowy winters, has a rich history of ice harvesting. In the days before refrigeration, ice was a vital commodity for keeping food fresh and preserving it during transport. The ice industry in Ontario was booming in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the frozen lakes and rivers of the province were a valuable resource for many entrepreneurs.

Ice harvesting in Ontario began in the early 1800s. The first icehouses were built along the shores of Lake Ontario, and they were used to store ice cut from the lake during the winter. In the early years, ice was cut by hand using saws and axes, and then transported to the icehouses using horse-drawn sleds.

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The ice trade really took off in the mid-1800s, thanks to the development of new technology that made the process more efficient. In 1845, an American inventor named John Gorrie patented a machine that produced ice, and soon after, the icebox was invented. These new inventions created a huge demand for ice, and entrepreneurs in Ontario were quick to capitalize on this new market.

The ice industry in Ontario grew rapidly, and by the late 1800s, there were hundreds of icehouses scattered throughout the province. Some of the most successful ice merchants were based in Kingston, where they had access to the frozen waters of Lake Ontario. These merchants would ship their ice to other cities in Ontario and beyond, and by the early 1900s, Ontario ice was being shipped as far away as England.

Ice businesses grew in Hamilton, Toronto, Lake Simcoe and Lake Nipissing Ontario. The ice in the Toronto area later became less marketable because of the quality of the water and so the Simcoe and Nipissing ice grew in popularity.

Ice fishing
A winter view across the lake on a grey day

Ice Harvest Method

The process of ice harvesting involved cutting large blocks of ice from the frozen surface of the lake and transporting them to storage facilities, where they would be packed in sawdust to keep them from melting. The blocks of ice were then shipped by train to cities across Ontario and beyond, where they would be used in refrigeration and cooling systems.

ice harvesting tools
Ice Harvest Tools

In the early days, the ice harvest was a labor-intensive process that involved large teams of men using hand saws and ice plows to cut the ice. The blocks of ice were then hauled by horse-drawn sleds to the storage facilities.

ice harvest tools catalogue
Ice Harvest Tools Catalogue page – I chose this image because I found a lot of scary looking tongs, saws and axes in our barn. Now I’m glad to know what they were for!

As technology advanced, the process of ice harvesting became more efficient. Steam-powered saws and ice plows were introduced, and later gasoline and diesel engines were used to power the equipment. The use of trucks and other motorized vehicles also replaced the horse-drawn sleds.

Lake nipissing ice harvest 1939
Lake Nipissing Ice Harvest 1939 – Source North Bay Museum

Shown above – a photo of a Lake Nipissing Ice Harvest which grew through the 1920s and 30s. At its height, more than 150,000 tons of ice were harvested from the lake each winter.

However, the advent of electric refrigeration and other cooling technologies in the mid-20th century led to the decline of the ice harvesting industry. By the 1950s, the demand for natural ice had declined significantly, and most of the ice harvesting operations shut down.

Why Our Little Bay?

Our island is in a large sandy bottomed bay with depths of about 10 to 20 feet in the area. We were trying to understand why our location would have suited ice harvesting – as it is not near any large cities or transportation corridors. It seems that our slow moving and shallow sandy water is the perfect type of location for harvesting quality ice!

Shallow, sandy bottomed, slow moving lakes were the best for harvesting ice because they produced the best ice – clear, free of air pockets and solid.

our shallow bay sandy bottomed bay
Our shallow, sandy bottomed, bay in the summer.
ice harvesting
Ice harvesting – location unknown

According to our visitor – the ice was harvested between the islands – and carried to an ice house by horse and wagon. The ice house apparently still exists on an island across the bay from us. Then the horse or horses were kept on our island. We have not yet snuck over to the neighbours to look for the ice house, but it is supposed to be a bunker made of rocks – below ground to keep the ice cool.

Ice harvesting played an important role in the history of Ontario, providing a valuable resource for food preservation and transportation in the days before refrigeration.

Some Interesting Facts about Ontario’s Ice Harvest:

  • In the early years of the ice industry, ice was harvested by hand and transported to icehouses using horse-drawn sleds. It was a backbreaking and dangerous job, and many workers suffered from frostbite and other cold-related injuries.
  • The ice trade was so lucrative in the late 1800s that some ice merchants became millionaires. One of the most successful was a man named John G. Booth, who built an ice empire in Kingston that made him one of the richest men in Canada.
  • Ice harvesting was a seasonal business, and many ice merchants had to find other ways to make money during the summer months. Some turned to fishing, while others became involved in the shipping and transportation industries.
ice harvest new york state
Ice Harvesting in New York State – Sodus Point on Lake Ontario

We had a nice walk across the frozen lake to our cottage a few weeks ago, and will be heading north again tomorrow to partake in some ice fishing. I’m grateful not to be harvesting blocks of ice from the lake for a living, but I think that the story of the ice industry is quite intriguing. I’m looking forward to warmer days, making memories and continuing to empty out the island barn.

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23 thoughts on “Ontario’s Ice Harvest History

  1. It is very interesting to learn about ice harvesting.. I remember I’ve seen how people would manipulate big chunks of ice in a movie, they looked so skilled, although I bet, not easy.
    How cute is to have a cottage on an island, I guess you can get safely there as long as the lake is solid frozen๐Ÿ™‚ The winter view is very similar from our cottage, but I’m not so sure the lake is safe for ice-fishing, or other activities, as the weather was really up and down these weeks, we shall see this weekend.. Happy Family Day/long weekend๐Ÿ™‚

    1. It’s kinda nice being on an island – but it’s not too far from people. We walked over a few weeks ago, went ice fishing just the other day nearby – the ice took a little longer to freeze this year, and when we did walk over there was a layer of slush on top that made the walking a challenge. Some snowmobiles stopped and gave us a lift! Hope you had a Happy Family Day!

  2. I remember pictures of ice harvesting at the lake in the area I grew up in and my dad talking about it. How big is the barn? Hard to tell in the picture. It might make a great guest house once it’s empty.

  3. In his diaries, my paternal grandfather writes about cutting ice from the local creek. He stored the ice under the “shop” which originally was the homestead shack. Dad must have done that, too, for the first few years after I was born and before we got electricity, and before the blizzard snowed us in for several days, and before Mom said, “we’re getting a freezer!”

    1. It’s wonderful that you are able to read his diaries. I wish I had some of my grandparent’s thoughts on record! I bet they would be fascinating. In terms of cutting ice, I just had never thought about it – and we had no history of the barn, so it was exciting to read about the local ice harvesting methods. I’m hoping to do a bit more research in local museums in the summer. It’s interesting to visualize how they must have stored the ice under the shop!

  4. My grandfather owned a dairy in Niagara Pennsylvania and cut ice on a small lake near Brock University, until the 1940s. My husband’s great grandmother owned a lodge in South Muskoka and cut ice for the lodge. Hard work but a necessity before refrigerators. We have the old ice box.

    1. Hi Joyce. That’s very interesting. One of my children went to Brock, and I am visualizing the small body of water nearby! The ice industry wasn’t something I had really thought about until I found out we had had horses on the island – and I just couldn’t figure out why. I find the whole process fascinating – definitely very hard work, but necessary as you said!

    1. Thank you. It wasn’t something I had really considered until we found out what the barn was for. There are a lot of interesting tools around too. The Hudson Valley is gorgeous – enoy!

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