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Once a major NH industry, a few people now keep the ice harvesting tradition alive

 A block of ice sits in a green wheelbarrow, with an ice pick in the foreground.
Mara Hoplamazian
/
NHPR
Ice at Rockywold Deephaven Camps is used to help keep guests' drinks and food cool in their cabins.

In the 1800s, ice harvesting was a booming industry in New England. Now, only a few local communities continue the tradition of extracting ice from lakes in the wintertime to store for use year-round.

For Rockywold Deephaven Camps in Holderness, N.H., the lake ice serves as an attraction for hundreds of people daily.

Editor's note: We highly recommend listening to this story.

 A person wearing a blue shirt and white shorts stands on the beach near a lake. There is a dock in the background.
Mara Hoplamazian
/
NHPR
Dave Lacasse stands on the shores of Squam lake, in the spot where he harvests ice over the winter.

Taking advantage of their proximity to Squam Lake, each winter a group of camp workers and volunteers venture onto the lake’s surface to saw the ice into large blocks and float them to shore. Then, they haul the 200 tons of ice in trucks to the campgrounds.

Dave Lacasse, maintenance supervisor for the camp, helps make sure each guest’s ice box, a wooden chest lined with sheet metal, is stocked every morning.

His team digs out ice from one of the camp's ice sheds, where about six feet of ice blocks, each weighing roughly 120 pounds, are currently stored.

A person uses a shovel to scrape sawdust off of a block of ice.
Adriana Martinez-Smiley
/
NHPR
Dave Lacasse uncovers ice in an ice house.

The blocks are covered in pine sawdust in the shaded sheds, which provides insulation for the ice to keep them cool all year, even in the summer heat.

But they do lose some ice due to melting, said Lacasse. He estimates they’ve lost about a foot of ice to the heat since the summer began.

 A block of ice is visible under a pile of sawdust.
Adriana Martinez-Smiley
/
NHPR
Long-time guest Katie North said the ice houses were exciting as a child. “They would scare us by telling us that there was an ice man who lived in there," she said. "There weren’t really rules or threats around the ice man….he just lived in there and it was spooky. It was fun."

Once the ice is unearthed with a shovel and pulled out of the shed, a worker will hose off the block, then hoist it into a green wheelbarrow to be transported around.

Ice blocks sit in five green wheelbarrows.
Mara Hoplamazian
/
NHPR
Every day, workers at Rockywold Deephaven Camps bring ice to guests' cabins.

The camp almost decided to do away with the ice chests before he arrived, said Lacasse. They proposed replacing them with mini-fridges.

“And the guests complained so much that [staff] said, 'No, this is not going to work.'”

 A person wearing a blue shirt and white shorts leans over a green chest.
Mara Hoplamazian
/
NHPR
Lacasse's team helps restore old ice chests during the winter months.

The process of getting the ice from the lake is the exciting part, said Lacasse. They have to walk – or drive – on the lake ice, which can be a bit scary at times.

“When you're out there, you hear the ice cracking all the time. And when you watch a truck pull away from the bridge, you can see the wave of the ice. You can't go too fast,” said Lacasse.

At Kezar Lake in North Sutton, married couple Pete and Marne Thompson are also keeping the practice of ice harvesting afloat. The Thompsons have been leading ice harvests for decades, helping make Muster Field Farm’s Ice Day event happen each winter.

 Two people pose next to a car. One is sitting, wearing a red sweatshirt that says "Musterfield Farm". The other is standing and wearing a blue polo shirt.
Mara Hoplamazian
/
NHPR
Pete and Marne Thompson

Marne Thompson said the rank of volunteers is getting smaller each year, as older residents pass. The electric saw blade they use at Muster Field Farm will only cut through eight inches of ice. It takes another half hour to finish cutting up the block by hand.

But younger participants are starting to help out.

“You don't realize the little thing you could do to make it just a little bit easier,” she said. “But they can show us.”

The Thompsons said they’ve started noticing the window to get ice has been getting smaller – sometimes they have to wait until February. And one year, they couldn’t get out on the lake to harvest ice, so they took it from a small pond on the farm.

As climate change makes winters shorter and warmer in New Hampshire, there's less ice to come by in local lakes. Back in Holderness, Lacasse said their harvest this past winter was at the end of February– the latest it’s ever been.

“I don't know what will happen with climate change, and that's what worries me,” he said. “This past winter, I was really thinking, oh boy, I hope we get the ice in.”

Lacasse said they’ll keep up with the ice tradition as long as they can. For now, people are just enjoying it before it melts away.

Adriana (she/they) was a news intern in the summer of 2023, reporting on environment, energy and climate news as part of By Degrees. They graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in June 2023.
Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.

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