The following article first appeared in The Echo of Cantley Volume 30 no 7, February 2019. This article is made available for the enjoyment of others with the express permission of the Echo of Cantley.
Winter was difficult for past generations of Cantley farmers. Many left their farms in the care of their wives so they could work elsewhere. Farmers who remained here had winter chores, work that was critical for survival. One of the most important was the cutting of ice blocks...or “cakes” as they were called here in Cantley.
Before electricity arrived in Cantley in the 1950s, food was refrigerated in an “ice box” which had an upper compartment for an ice block and lower compartment for storing the food. A draining tube ran from the top to a tray underneath the ice box. Early ice boxes were made of wood lined with metal. In summer, ice had to be replaced every 2 days, so in winter it was essential to stockpile enough ice blocks for the year in the farm’s ice house.
The McClelland’s ice house was a double-walled shed near the barn. As insulation, sawdust filled the walls and covered the approximately 200 ice blocks that were piled about 6 feet deep. Many farmers obtained their sawdust from Anthony Milks or another local sawmill.
Harvesting ice was dangerous for the farmer and his horses. Once the water froze to about 2 feet thick, he drove his two horses and sleigh on to the ice. Using his auger, he drilled a hole to create water space. Then, he cut the ice with a long, sharp, one-handle saw specifically designed to cut vertically. He had to sharpen his saw often so it wouldn’t bind. Once cut, these thick heavy blocks floated on the water until the farmer lifted them on to his sleigh with his ice tongs.
Imagine how much physical strength and stamina harvesting required, especially in the freezing conditions! Farmers wore black waterproof, non-insulated rubber boots for the job. If their feet were cold they filled their boots with the water to prevent frostbite. It is reputed that the largest number of ice cakes ever drawn on a sleigh was 33 by Russell Blackburn. He took them to Ottawa’s Byward Market to be sold for 5 cents a cake. The load was so heavy the horses could hardly pull the sleigh!
Tragedies happened. Lola Foley told of a team of horses that tragically drowned at the Hydro Dam Beach where her husband Ray cut ice. According to Gary Blackburn, horses often fell through the ice. To prevent drowning, the farmer took the harness off the horse while it was in the water, then attached a choking line around the horse’s neck, causing the horse to inflate and float on top of the water. He used the other horse to pull it to safety, released the choke and helped the horse to breathe again.
Ice was harvested from any water deep enough. The Blackburn’s cut ice from the Gatineau River at the end of River Road, the McClelland’s from the lake behind the satellite station and from Blackburn Creek.
Next time you complain about winter, take a moment to think of the ice harvesters and Cantley winters of bygone times.
Please visit cantley1889.ca to discover more about Cantley’s heritage.