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CUTTING ICE AT 14° BELOW ZERO
GENERALLY speaking, young folks are glad when school is done. But it wasn't so with us that winter in the old Squire's district, when Master Pierson was teacher. We were really sad, in fact quite melancholy, and some of the girls shed tears, when the last day of school came and "old Joel" tied up the melodeon, took down the wall maps, packed up his books and went back to his Class in College. He was sad himself — he had taken such interest in our progress.
"Now don't forget what you have learned!" he exclaimed. "Hang on to it. Knowledge is your best friend. You must go on with your Latin, evenings."
"You will surely come back next winter!" we shouted after him as he drove away..
"Maybe," he said, and would not trust himself to look back.
The old sitting-room seemed wholly deserted that
Friday night after he went away. "We are like sheep without a shepherd," Theodora said. Catherine and Tom came over. We opened our Latin books and tried to study awhile; but 'twas dreary without "old Joel."
Other things, however, other duties and other work at the farm immediately occupied our attention. It was now mid-January and there was ice to be cut on the lake for our new creamery.
For three years the old Squire had been breeding a herd of Jerseys. There were sixteen of them: Jersey First, Canary, Jersey Second, Little Queen, Beauty, Buttercup, and all the rest. Each one had her own little book that hung from its nail on a beam of the tie-up behind her stall. In it were recorded her pedigree, dates, and the number of pounds of milk she gave at each milking. The scales for weighing the milk hung from the same beam. We weighed each milking, and jotted down the weight with the pencil tied to each little book. All this was to show which of the herd was most profitable, and which calves had better be kept for increase.
This was a new departure in Maine farming. Cream-separators were as yet undreamed of. A water-creamery with long cans and ice was then used for raising the cream; and that meant an ice-house and the cutting and hauling home of a year's stock of ice from the lake, nearly two miles distant.
We built a new ice-house near the east barn in November; and in December the old Squire drove to Portland and brought home a complete kit of tools — three ice-saws, an ice-plow or groover, ice-tongs, hooks, chisels, tackle and block.
Everything had to be bought new, but the old Squire had visions of great profits ahead from his growing herd of Jerseys. Grandmother, however, was less sanguine.
It was unusually cold in December that year, frequently ten degrees below zero, and there were many high winds. Consequently, the ice on the lake thickened early to twelve inches, and bade fair to go to two feet. For use in a water-creamery, ice is most conveniently cut and handled when not more than fifteen or sixteen inches thick. That thickness, too, when the cakes are cut twenty-six inches square, as usual, makes them quite heavy enough for hoisting and packing in an ice-house.
Half a mile from the head of the lake, over deep, clear water, we had been scraping and sweeping a large surface after every snow, in order to have clear ice. Two or three times a week Addison ran down and tested the thickness; and when it reached fifteen inches, we bestirred ourselves at our new work.
None of us knew much about cutting ice; but we laid off a straight base-line of a hundred feet, hitched old Sol to the new groover, and marked off five hundred cakes. Addison and I then set to work with two of our new ice-saws, and hauled out the cakes with the ice-tongs, while Halstead and the old Squire loaded them on the long horse-sled, — sixteen cakes to the load, — drew the ice home, and packed it away in the new ice-house.
Although at first the sawing seemed easy, we soon found it tiresome, and learned that two hundred cakes a day meant a hard day's work, particularly after the saws lost their keen edge — for even ice will dull a saw in a day or two. We had also to be pretty careful, for it was over deep black water, and a cake when nearly sawed across is likely to break off suddenly underfoot.
Hauling out the cakes with tongs, too, is somewhat hazardous on a slippery ice margin. We beveled off a kind of inclined "slip" at one end of the open water, and cut heel holes in the ice beside it, so that we might stand more securely as we pulled the cakes out of the water.
For those first few days we had bright, calm weather, not very cold; we got out five hundred cakes and drew them home to the ice-house without accident.
The hardship came the next week, when several of our neighbors — who always kept an eye on the old Squire's farming, and liked to follow his lead — were beset by an ambition to start ice-houses. None of them had either experience or tools. They wanted us to cut the ice for them.
We thought that was asking rather too much. Thereupon fourteen or fifteen of them offered us two cents a cake to cut a year's supply for each of them.
Now no one will ever get very rich cutting ice, sixteen inches thick, at two cents a cake. But Addison and I thought it over, and asked the old Squire's opinion. He said that we might take the new kit, and have all we could make.
On that, we notified them all to come and begin drawing home their cakes the following Monday morning, for the ice was growing thicker all the while; and the thicker it got, the harder our work would be.
They wanted about four thousand cakes; and as we would need help, we took in Thomas Edwards and Willis Murch as partners. Both were good workers, and we anticipated having a rather fine time at the lake.
In the woods on the west shore, nearly opposite where the ice was to be cut, there was an old "shook" camp, where we kept our food and slept at night, in order to avoid the long walk home to meals.
On Sunday it snowed, and cleared off cold and windy again. It was eight degrees below zero on Monday morning, when we took our outfit and went to work. Everything was frozen hard as a rock. The wind, sweeping down the lake, drove the fine, loose snow before it like smoke from a forest fire. There was no shelter. We had to stand out and saw ice in the bitter wind, which seemed to pierce to the very marrow of our bones. It was impossible to keep a fire; and it always seems colder when you are standing on ice.
It makes me shiver now to think of that week, for it grew colder instead of warmer. A veritable "cold snap" set in, and never for an hour, night or day, did that bitter wind let up.
We would have quit work and waited for calmer weather, — the old Squire advised us to do so, but the ice was getting thicker every day. Every inch added to the thickness made the work of sawing harder — at two cents a cake. So we stuck to it, and worked away in that cruel wind.
On Thursday it got so cold that if we stopped the saws even for two seconds, they froze in hard and fast, and had to be cut out with an ax; thus two cakes would be spoiled. It was not easy to keep the saws going fast enough not to catch and freeze in; and the cakes had to be hauled out the moment they were sawed, or they would freeze on again. Moreover, the patch of open water that we uncovered froze over in a few minutes, and had to be cleared a dozen times a day. During those nights it froze five inches thick, and filled with snow-drift, all of which had to be cleared out every morning.
Although we had our caps pulled down over our ears and heavy mittens on, and wore all the clothes we could possibly work in, it yet seemed at times that freeze we must — especially toward night, when we grew tired from the hard work of sawing so long and so fast. We became so chilled that we could hardly speak; and at sunset, when we stopped work, we could hardly get across to the camp. The farmers, who were coming twice a day with their teams for ice, complained constantly of the cold; several of them stopped drawing altogether for the time. Willis also stopped work on Thursday at noon.
The people at home knew that we were having a hard time. Grandmother and the girls did all they could for us; and every day at noon and again at night the old Squire, bundled up in his buffalo-skin coat, drove down to the lake with horse and pung, and brought us a warm meal, packed in a large box with half a dozen hot bricks.
Only one who has been chilled through all day can imagine how glad we were to reach that warm camp at night. Indeed, except for the camp, we could never have worked there as we did. It was a log camp, or rather two camps, placed end to end, and you went through the first in order to get into the second, which had no outside door. The second camp had been built especially for cold weather. It was low, and the chinks between the logs were tamped with moss. At this time, too, snow lay on it, and had banked up against the walls. Inside the camp, across one end, there was a long bunk; at the opposite end stood an old cooking-stove, that seemed much too large for so small a camp.
At dusk we dropped work, made for the camp, shut all the doors, built the hottest fire we could make, and thawed ourselves out. It seemed as though we could never get warmed through. For an hour or more we hovered about the stove. The camp was as hot as an oven; I have no doubt that we kept the temperature at 110°; and yet we were not warm.
"Put in more wood!" Addison or Thomas would exclaim. "Cram that stove full again! Let's get warm!"
We thought so little of ventilation that we shut the camp door tight and stopped every aperture that we could find. We needed heat to counteract the effect of those long hours of cold and wind.
By the time we had eaten our supper and thawed out, we grew sleepy, and under all our bedclothing, curled up in the bunk. So fearful were we lest the fire should go out in the night that we gathered a huge heap of fuel, and we all agreed to get up and stuff the stove whenever we waked and found the fire abating.
Among the neighbors for whom we were cutting ice was Rufus Sylvester. He was not a very careful or prosperous farmer, and not likely to be successful at dairying. But because the old Squire and others were embarking in that business, Rufus wished to do so, too. He had no ice-house, but thought he could keep ice buried in sawdust, in the shade of a large apple-tree near his barn; and I may add here that he tried it with indifferent success for three years, and that it killed the apple-tree.
On Saturday of that cold week he came to the lake with his lame old horse and a rickety sled, and wanted us to cut a hundred cakes of ice for him. The prospect of our getting our pay was poor. Saturday, moreover, was the coldest, windiest day of the whole week; the temperature was down to fourteen degrees below.
Halse and Thomas said no; but he hung round, and teased us, while his half-starved old horse shivered in the wind; and we finally decided to oblige him, if he would take the tongs and haul out the cakes himself, as we sawed them. It would not do to stop the saws that day, even for a moment.
Rufus had on an old blue army overcoat, the cape of which was turned up over his head and ears, and a red woolen "comforter" round his neck. He wore long-legged, stiff cowhide boots, with his trousers tucked into the tops.
Addison, Thomas and I were sawing, with our backs turned to Rufus and to the wind, and Rufus was trying to haul out a cake of ice, when we heard a clatter and a muffled shout. Rufus had slipped in! We looked round just in time to see him go down into that black, icy water.
Addison let go the saw and sprang for one of the ice-hooks. I did the same. The hook I grabbed was frozen down; but Addison got his free, and stuck it into Rufus's blue overcoat. It tore out, and down Rufus went again, head and ears under. His head, in fact, slid beneath the edge of the ice, but his back popped up.
Addison struck again with the hook — struck harder. He hooked it through all Rufus's clothes, and took a piece of his skin. It held that time, and we hauled him out.
He lay quite inert on the ice, choking and coughing.
"Get up! Get up!" we shouted to him. "Get up and run, or you'll freeze!"
He tried to rise, but failed to regain his feet, and collapsed. Thereupon Addison and Thomas laid hold of him, and lifted him to his feet by main strength.
"Now run!" they cried. "Run before your clothes freeze stiff!" The man seemed lethargic — I suppose from the deadly chill. He made an effort to move his feet, as they bade him, but fell flat again; and by that time his clothes were stiffening.
"He will freeze to death!" Addison cried. "We must put him on his sled and get him home!"
Thereupon we picked him up like a log of wood, and laid him on his horse-sled.
"But he will freeze before we can get this old lame horse home with him!" exclaimed Thomas. "Better take him to our camp over there."
Addison thought so, too, and seizing the reins and whip, started for the shore. The old horse was so chilled that we could hardly get him to hobble; but we did not spare the whip.
From the shore we had still fifteen or twenty rods to go, in order to reach the camp back in the woods. Rufus's clothes were frozen as stiff as boards; apparently he could not move. We feared that the man would die on our hands.
We snatched off one of the side boards of his sled, laid him on it, and, taking it up like a stretcher, started to carry him up through the woods to the camp.
By that time his long overcoat and all the rest of his clothes were frozen so stiff and hard that he rolled round more, like a log than a human body.
The path was rough and snowy. In our haste we stumbled, and dropped him several times, but we rolled him on the board again, rushed on, and at last got him inside the camp. Our morning fire had gone out. Halse kindled it again, while Addison, Thomas and I tried to get off the frozen overcoat and long cowhide boots.
The coat was simply a sheet of ice; we could do nothing with it. At last we took our knives and cut it
down the back, and after cutting open both sleeves, managed to peel it off. We had to cut open his boots in the same way. His under-coat and all his clothes were frozen. There appeared to be little warmth left in him; he was speechless.
But just then we heard some one coming in through the outside camp. It was the old Squire.
Our farmhouse, on the higher ground to the northwest, afforded a view of the lake; and the old gentleman had been keeping an eye on what went on down there, for he was quite far-sighted. He saw Sylvester arrive with his team, and a few minutes later saw us start for the shore, lashing the horse. He knew that something had gone wrong, and hitching up old Sol, he had driven down in haste.
"Hot water, quick!" he said. "Make some hot coffee!" And seizing a towel, he gave Sylvester such a rubbing as it is safe to say he had never undergone before.
Gradually signs of life and color appeared. The man began to speak, although rather thickly.
By this time the little camp was like an oven; but the old Squire kept up the friction. We gave Rufus two or three cups of hot coffee, and in the course of an hour he was quite himself again.
We kept him at the camp until the afternoon, however, and then started him home, wrapped in a horse-blanket instead of his army overcoat. He was none the worse for his misadventure, although he declared we tore off two inches of his skin!
On Sunday the weather began to moderate, and the last four days of our ice-cutting were much more comfortable. It had been a severe ordeal, however; the eighty-one dollars that we collected for it were but scanty recompense for the misery we had endured.