The Ice Harvest

John T. Welch with his team

A low murmuring punctuated by terse commands came from inside the barn. The man’s voice, calm but firm, steadied the horses as their tack was buckled and settled into place. The leather creaked and he noticed that it needed oiling. The rings and chain on the harness jangled softly in the quiet of the morning. The two Belgians stood imposing, heads shaking as they settled into their gear, mouths working the bits. Snorting, white smoke-like plumes shot out and around in the frigid winter air as the man turned and slid open the barn door. Dawn had arrived while he worked with the horses, getting ready for the day. The southern sun was bright and held promise for the kind of winter day that one could usually find in Michigan; bitter cold crystalline brightness that causes a perpetual squint, and a bright sun that brings the sweaty discomfort of thick woolen layers against the skin.
The boys had been busy gathering the tools and together were lifting the scorer into the bed of the sleigh. Even the youngest, Frank, was doing his part, though all the boys looked like they’d tossed and landed a few snowballs while their dad was busy in the barn.

John T. didn’t comment on the horseplay. The sleigh was loaded and boys, well. He led the horses out and backed them up to make the few quick connections, then he looped the reins to the hand brake then turned to head up the rise to the house. “Take them to the road, Frank.”
The seven year old stood still for a moment looking after his dad. John never turned around. Frank scrambled up onto the seat of the sleigh trying hard so smother an ever-widening grin. The older boys whooped and hollered, calling out encouragement laced with good natured ribbing at their little brother. Mimicking the clipped commands of his father only higher pitched, the boy clucked his tongue against his teeth and slowly guided the horses around the barn and out to the road that led down and around to the lake.
John went to the back door of the house where mother Welch stood bundled up holding a sizable bag out for him to take. “Good harvest, John T,” she said, “Stay warm”. And with that she shut the door against the cold. The boys waited patiently in the sleigh. Climbing up to his seat next to Frank he handed their lunch bag to the boys in back who stowed it away for safekeeping. The weather had been biting cold and Glen lake had frozen over quickly. “We should be able to fill the Ice House today, boys! Let’s get to it!” With that John T. clucked at the horses and flicking his wrists, the reins slapped with a soft tap on their backs and rumps, sending them trotting down the road from Springdale Farm toward the narrows.
John was a woodsman as well as a farmer. He also was not the only one to capitalize on the need for ice. There were other teams working the lake, and the local need created a healthy demand during the summer months. Being a woodsman, even though the logging industry was falling off, John had a ready supply of insulation in the form of sawdust. Ray and Lawrence were up at the ice house making sure that all would be ready to receive the day’s supply, insulate, and shut the doors and hatches against a thaw. Norm was already down at the lake with a couple young men from town looking for winter work. The younger boys, Glen, Ed, and Frank would be used, with Norm’s help, to break the ice blocks free and gaff them into position to be lifted out of the freezing water with tongs, slid up the boards and into the sleigh. As John came up to the narrows and turned the horses out onto the lake he saw Norman and two others using the special cross cut saws on the ice field.

For a couple days a stiff wind off lake Michigan kept the lake free of snow; ‘That’s one less step for us’, he thought. He saw two other teams to the North taking ice from the lake. There was certainly plenty for the taking. Norm and his cohorts had already created a ramp of ice and snow to load blocks into the sleigh. He had waved at his dad and brothers and kept sawing away at the ice. Glen, Ed, and Frank had already jumped out of the sleigh and we’re grabbing at tongs, gaff and wedges as John backed the horses and sleigh slowly to the ramp.

This was Frank’s first year ice harvesting so he followed the lead of his brothers. Getting down from the sleigh John called out to his older boy with total nonchalance, “Norm, that’s a two man saw, where’s your other man?” Norm stopped cutting and looked down at the saw sticking up out of the ice. “I guess he couldn’t hold his breath,” he responded with a sly grin. Young Frank’s eyes went wide until the boys all started laughing. Each to his task the team worked steadily to cut, hook, lift and load until the sleigh was full and John left for the ice house with Glen in tow. Norm, being the oldest, took charge and told the boys to take a break. It was cold enough that they gathered wood along the shoreline and built a fire a short distance from the harvest field. He gave the boys a few minutes to warm themselves then set them back to work. All the boys knew that it was important to give a good accounting of their time. The family depended on everyone doing their best at tasks, and dad didn’t tolerate laziness. By the time John returned, well pleased with Ray and Lawrence’s work at the ice house, the lake team already had a group of blocks set ready for loading. John smiled, proud of his boy’s industry. The younger boys were loud, but their tomfoolery didn’t get in the way of their work. Ray, Lawrence and Norman knew what needed doing, and guided the younger ones when he wasn’t around. The ice house would be filled and ready for the summer folk who, more and more, built cottages around the lakes and needed a supply of ice in their own shed. A man does what he must to care for his family. If he gives his word he keeps it, if his neighbor needs help he gives it, it could be him who needs help the next time. Backing up the sleigh he says: “All right boys, let’s load ‘er up!”

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Kevin is a Life biographer, factual and fictional. Humorist, Dreamer, and Romantic. "I wanted to live deliberately. suck all the marrow out of life".

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