Ice Becomes an Industry in Poconos
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association
One hundred years ago, Monroe County was a leader in northeastern Pennsylvania’s ice production and distribution business. The ice was initially harvested from our lakes for use locally by both residents and resorts catering to tourists. As demand for ice grew, Monroe County ice companies began to transport their ice to areas outside Monroe County including New York and Philadelphia. Although it hasn’t been so this year, the freezing winter temperatures of the Poconos guaranteed a large crop of ice and provided employment to hundreds of local citizens throughout northeastern Pennsylvania.
Harvesting ice was hard, cold work. Beginning in January, or even December if the weather had been cold enough, laborers flocked to the frozen lakes looking for employment. In particular, many farmers were able to earn a little extra income by harvesting ice.
Harvesting ice from lakes was not as simple as chipping away at the sheet. First, the lake had to be prepared, by plowing away any snow, then scraping the ice to a smooth surface with large, horse-drawn planes. Next, the boundary of the area to be harvested was scored into the ice with a hand cutter. The boundary had to be marked carefully, as all of the blocks needed to be the same size to make storing the blocks easier and more efficient. After the boundary was marked, a worker with a horse-drawn “cutter” would score a checkerboard pattern in the harvesting area. The cutter, which resembled a strange mix of a child’s sleigh and an old-fashioned plow, had two runners. One runner was a guide plane, with which the cutter operator would carefully follow the boundary line. The other runner was an actual cutter, that carved a two-inch deep groove into the ice. The cutter operator would then turn his horse and make the next pass, scoring one line at a time. The runners on the cutter were exactly forty-four inches apart. By the time the cutter operator was finished, the lake had been scored into a grid-work of 44x44 inch blocks.
After the layout was complete, anther horse-drawn sleigh was used. This tool, an all iron ice plow, had adjustable blades on three runners and was used to retrace the grid, scoring the ice to within four inches of the bottom of the ice sheet. As the ice was now too weak to hold the weight of horses, the final step in the process was cutting through the ice blocks by hand with long-bladed saws. Workers would saw off very large sections of the sheet, then ride them as they were floated or pulled across the ice toward the ice house. As they approached the ice house, the men would break the large sections into their 44 inch squares with a series wedge-like of bars.
Monroe County boasted many lakes and thus many ice companies. While local merchants had been cutting and distributing ice since the 1880s, it was the Pocono Mountain Ice Company that turned local ice into industry. In 1893, investors from Easton established the Pocono Ice Company in Pocono Pines. These investors initially devoted $30,000 into the new company and built an ice house capable of storing 104,000 tons of ice. By 1900, the Pocono Ice Company was so successful, the promise of profit drew more companies to the area. The Pocono Ice Company rapidly became the largest with ice plants in both Tobyhanna and Gouldsboro.
Poponoming Ice Company was established at Saylor’s Lake, employed 30 men with 20 teams of horses, and was capable of storing 30,000 tons of ice. Interestingly, the ice houses were eventually torn down, and the lumber was used to build cottages along the lake front. Trout Lake and Mountain Springs Lake in Reeders boasted a storage capacity of 130,000 tons of ice. The Tunkhannock Ice Company on Stillwater Lake built a 10-room storage house and could house 31,000 tons of ice. The American Ice Company housed 57,000 tons of ice on the shores of Lake Naomi.
By the end of the 1930s, modern electric refrigerators replaced the ice boxes. Ice could be made at home easily, and eventually there was no need for ice to be harvested from frozen Monroe County lakes. But the ice harvesting tradition still continues today. The Coolbaugh Township Historical Association schedules an ice harvest each winter in Tobyhanna.