Article published May 25, 2014
Last ice-cutting operation focus of Hike through History
SOUTH BERWICK, Maine – It may be a hot day in May, but local students will get their hands on some of New England’s rare lake-cut ice—and learn how a local family kept South Berwick residents cool in the days before electrical refrigeration.
Placide Gagnon, born in Quebec in 1880, immigrated to this area to start an ice and wood business that still operates as P. Gagnon and Son heating oil and propane company. This month, as over 700 students prepare for this year’s Hike through History, four blocks of ice cut on Squam Lake in New Hampshire last winter will make their way to the P. Gagnon parking lot from Rockywold Deephaven Camps, to become part of a local history lesson about Gagnon’s early ice-cutting trade, using tools like an ice saw, pike pole and tongs.
Located in Holderness and also over 100 years old, Rockywold Deephaven Camps still use lake ice at their summer cabins. Using traditional methods dating back generations, ice-cutters harvest the blocks during January and February, pack them in sawdust, and store them in icehouses until summer. Each block measures about 16 by 16 inches and weighs about 140 pounds.
This month Scott Landis and Nina Maurer, organizers with the Old Berwick Historical Society, will truck four 140-pound blocks to South Berwick for the Hike through History, where ice-cutting will be one of 22 historic trades of South Berwick Village on display for over 500 students from Central School, Eliot Elementary, Marshwood Middle School, and Berwick Academy.
Other trades on view that day will include timber framing, as a local father of three elementary children, Dan Boyle, will demonstrate hewing, joinery, and other techniques once used to raise the Freewill Baptist Church up a story in 1886 and later to add a tower for the town clock.
Another trade is blacksmithing, as amateur blacksmith Steve Woodman, of Lebanon, Maine, will make horseshoes and chain links similar to those once used by liveryman Simeon Huntress, who ran a stable in downtown South Berwick.
Among the real local characters portrayed by eighth graders will be militia soldier John G. Thompson, who in 1826 was part of a group from the Second Company, First Brigade, First Division of the Maine militia. On the Hike through History an eighth grader will wear a custom-made militia uniform of the 1820s, purchased with a donation from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5744 of South Berwick.
Using historical information developed from authentic records by the Old Berwick Historical Society, about 180 eighth graders and 200 third graders have been studying the history of particular South Berwick tradespeople, in order to make presentations to the younger students.
“This ambitious program is unique in the state of Maine, and perhaps in the nation, as a collaboration of public and private schools, museums, businesses and nonprofits to stage a living history event,” said Maurer, who is Hike project consultant at OBHS.
Over 15 local businesses have contributed to this year’s Hike to supply tools and equipment needed by students to demonstrate historic trades. The Hike through History route travels through a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and property owners cooperate with children celebrating lore associated with their homes.
For more than 40 years, the Gagnon family cut ice from nearby frozen ponds, including Knight’s Pond and a pond in the Old Mill section of town adjacent to the Great Works River. They cut blocks of foot-thick ice that might each weigh 200 pounds, using long-handled ice saws and pike poles to guide the floating blocks to the icehouse. Horses pulled the ice blocks up a ramp and into storage.
Resident Owen Stevens remembers playing with Peter’s grandson Dick at the Old Mill icehouse, which had double wooden walls filled with a foot-thick layer of sawdust to insulate the closely packed ice long into summer. Ice was delivered daily to dairy farms in town to keep milk cool. Gagnon’s annual ice harvest continued until the early 1950s, when cheaper manufactured ice became available.
Cynthia Gagnon, Dick’s wife, recalls that the Gagnon household was the last family in town to abandon their icebox for an electric refrigerator.
As the younger pupils hike, they’ll meet local residents from the past, portrayed by older students. Third graders prepared for the Hike in early May by walking to the historical society’s Counting House Museum for a special program, “Made for Trade,” which taught the concepts of bartering and interdependence, examining items from the museum collection and working with volunteers portraying tradespeople to barter for historical goods and services.
For the past 20 years, the Hike through History has been a collaboration between the Marshwood Schools and the Old Berwick Historical Society. Teacher Pamela Mulcahey coordinates the event.
“This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Hike program, which has grown from the inspiration of one enterprising teacher to become an interactive learning model for elementary grades,” said Maurer, adding that a 20th anniversary celebration is planned for 6 p.m. at South Berwick Public Library on Thursday, May 29.
This year is also the 200th anniversary of the town of South Berwick.