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A tale of ice and men, and a new idea

Special to The Times

The Frozen-Water Trade

A True Story

Gavin Weightman

Hyperion: 254 pp., $23.95

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It wasn’t a new invention, like the electric telegraph or the railway. It wasn’t a new discovery, like gold in California. It was just an idea. All it required was timber, sailcloth, horsepower, manpower and the traditional skills of blacksmiths, farmers and sailors.

Yet this idea, and these skills, created a great industry in the 19th century, the harvesting and distribution of natural lake and river ice that made America, in the words of author Gavin Weightman, “the first-ever refrigerated nation.”

“The Frozen-Water Trade” presents a lively and largely forgotten story, and Weightman, a writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in London, tells it thoroughly and easily. It is, too, a typically New England or “Yankee” story, from a region without many natural resources that still made a good living for itself by figuring out what other people wanted and getting it to them.

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The idea came in 1805 to two Massachusetts brothers who lived on the family farm between Boston and Salem. They had been left a little money to invest. In summer they had enjoyed ice cream and drinks made of ice cut in the winter on a nearby pond and stored in the family icehouse. It occurred to them that, if they could sell ice to the torrid West Indies and the Southern states of America, they would be, in the words of the 22-year-old brother, Frederic Tudor, “inevitably and unavoidably rich.”

In the end, Frederic was. He went to live on a large estate at Nahant, on the sea just north of Boston, and was known as the “Ice King.” (His older brother William, who had the idea first, died much earlier.) Frederic’s ships carried New England ice for 50 years to the British in Calcutta; he supplied the American Southern states and sent ice around Cape Horn to San Francisco. His success inspired many successful imitators, from New York to the upper Middle West to the Sierra Nevada, and Americans came to take it for granted that they could have cool drinks and ice cream in summer and could send fresh meat, fish, fruit and chilled beer across the nation in railway cars refrigerated by natural ice.

Great success was possible in the entrepreneurial 19th century in America, but so was great failure. Along the way to riches, Frederic Tudor suffered the humiliations of bankruptcy and debtor’s prison. His surviving writings make clear that his very determination to succeed in the face of numerous setbacks brought him, in the end, success.

It was Frederic Tudor who conceived of the notion that getting ice unmelted to its destination depended on keeping it insulated. This he managed by storing it in the holds of ships, well-wrapped in sawdust from Maine’s numerous sawmills. Eventually he built icehouses, from Charleston to Calcutta, for storing the ice on its arrival.

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A colleague, Nathaniel Wyeth, devised most of the procedures and machinery for cutting the ice. Wyeth grew up in a hotel his father owned on the banks of Fresh Pond, a small lake in Cambridge, Mass. He designed the operations by which teams of horses would pull ice cutters in rectangular crisscross patterns across the frozen pond, leaving men with crowbars and tongs to lift the ice blocks loose. In the beginning, all Tudor’s ice came from Fresh Pond.

Not every winter was good for Massachusetts ice. A few seasons too warm led Tudor, and others, to the Kennebec River and other rivers in Maine, which flourished as Massachusetts suffered.

Frederic Tudor died in 1864. By 1880 the industry he started had grown large enough that the U.S. Census devoted a special report to it; thousands of men were harvesting millions of tons of ice each winter. It wasn’t until after World War I that ice made artificially became competitive in price with natural ice, and not until the late 1920s and 1930s that automatic refrigerators became standard appliances in American homes.

What could have been a run-of-the-mill tale of the rise and fall of a business Weightman makes into an eye-opening and intriguing story of Yankee imagination. “The Frozen-Water Trade” takes readers on an adventure in the enterprising years of the 19th century.

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