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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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