Ice cutting a tradition for Amish


HOWARD, Ohio — They say it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good. This cold January has certainly helped the fuel dealers, and it has put a thick layer of ice on farm ponds.

Last year was a poor year for ice cutting. Those who cut when it was 4 inches thick managed to fill their ice houses, but those who gambled and waited saw it vanish in a January thaw.

This year there were a lot of empty icehouses around. By the third week of January there was 6 to 8 inches of ice on the ponds in Knox County, Ohio, depending on how well they were kept clear of snow.

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Snow is a great insulator, and as soon as one can get out on the ice and keep it clear, the sooner they can cut.

Ice-cutting frolics

To most, the thought of cutting ice immediately brings to mind huge blocks of ice weighing hundreds of pounds and violent physical labor. That was once true in the northern tier of states, but in my neighborhood it’s time for what the plain folks call ice-cutting frolics.

Gone are the old double wall, wood frame icehouses, insulated with sawdust. In their place are Styrofoam structures with 2-foot thick walls that will keep ice for two years.

Most of them are shared by at least two families. Much of the ice is used to make hand-cranked ice cream, the main dish at birthday parties and other celebrations throughout the year. The families who share the ice will gather for an ice-cutting frolic.

A couple of teams of horses and low-slung wagons are needed. And every family has at least one chain saw, snow shovels and ice tongs.

Fabricating ice-cutting saws from salvage parts seems to be a hobby of some sort in every Amish community. And the designers are only too anxious to lend their latest creations out for trial runs. I have never heard of any of these masterpieces of engineering ever falling through the ice.

But to engineer is human, and most of these ice saws are very practical and inexpensive.

A day in advance the women are busy baking cookies and cakes and getting a big meal ready to satisfy the appetites that can be built cutting ice in subfreezing weather. The girls can impress the young men with their latest pastry recipes while they keep the ice-cutting crew supplied with snacks and hot drinks.

Work flow

Some of the girls may even join the boys on the ice and help slide the blocks of ice over the water-slicked surface to crews on shore loading the wagons.

Probably the least glamorous job is packing the icehouse. That requires attention to air flow and safe stacking to prevent what could amount to a deadfall should a stack of ice collapse. But the job is rotated before it becomes boring and people get careless.

Few of them will give much thought in terms of dollars and cents to the $5,000 or $6,000 worth of ice they have to show for their efforts.

With a dozen or more workers outside and several inside cooking, looking after the children and just visiting, the job gets done with plenty of time to spare for a good meal for famished workers and time for socializing and to reflect on a job well-done by recycling renewable energy at little expense.

Few of them will give much thought in terms of dollars and cents to the $5,000 or $6,000 worth of ice they have to show for their efforts as they return home after dark, comfortably tired, to a well earned, peaceful night’s sleep.


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