MARKESAN — Saturday would have been a perfect day to ice fish on Lake Mendota.
I made it onto frozen water, but instead of chasing northern pike on the 9,781-acre Madison lake, I found myself among Amish families as they harvested 80-pound blocks of ice from a one-acre farm pond on Yunkers Road in southern Green Lake County.
The weather was spectacular with a sun-drenched sky and temperatures in the 30s. Although, for cutting, hauling and packing away ice into small out buildings that resemble backyard storage sheds, colder temperatures would have been preferable.
“It’s nice to work in, but it’s not as good for the ice,” said Lynn Miller, 51, who spent much of his morning running a monstrous ice-cutting saw powered by a 13-horse Honda engine. “Ten to 15 degrees is ideal.”
Colder weather makes handling the 12-inch-by-18-inch blocks of ice easier, Miller said. Warmer weather weakens the ice and causes the 12-inch thick blocks to begin melting, making them more slick.
This ice, you see, has staying power.
The 1,500 blocks cut Saturday will be used to keep food cold year-round and helps make ice cream in the summer. A few blocks in a deep freeze box, which sometimes are old, non-working chest freezers, can last four to five days. There is no central ice warehouse. Instead, each Amish family has its own icehouse that can hold 200 to 250 blocks of ice. Built with well-insulated walls more than a foot thick, ice has been known to keep for two or even three years in an icehouse.
Saturday’s event, just over an hour drive north from Madison, was one of more than a dozen ice harvests that have been or will be held this winter in this Amish enclave that speaks Pennsylvania Dutch and includes the communities of Kingston, Dalton and Manchester.
“It’s interesting to watch it,” said Edna Eicher, 64, whose son, Amos Eicher Jr., owns the 12-foot-deep pond. “No matter how warm the summer is, we have ice. We’ve thrown 2-year-old ice out.”
Ice harvests used to be common in Wisconsin.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Pewaukee Lake in Waukesha County was a source of ice for Milwaukee breweries and meat packing companies, while lakes Monona and Wingra in Madison helped supply Chicago markets with ice. By the early 1920s, as refrigeration became more common, most large ice harvesting firms had closed, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
The exception would be the Junction City Ice Co., a civic organization northwest of Stevens Point. Each February, the nonprofit harvests about 1,200 blocks that can weigh 235 pounds from a 40-acre man-made lake east of the village. The blocks are used at fairs and picnics, and proceeds from the ice sale are used for improvements in the village park, said Pat Arnold, one of the organizers.
The chance to take in the Amish ice harvest on Saturday was the result of a friendship that State Journal photographer John Hart struck with Mike Martin, a Watertown developer and builder who employs Amish craftsmen to help build his homes. Martin, 45, has worked with the Amish for about 15 years.
Miller, for example, is a general contractor. Eicher Jr. and his father, Amos Eicher Sr., are expert cabinet and furniture makers.
A few miles away on Countyline Road, the Amish owners of L&L Furniture make mission bedroom furniture and have an icehouse, which includes a separate ice box, a few yards from their home.
Martin was on hand Saturday and used his truck and trailer to haul ice from the pond to nearby Amish farms.
“When you come back home and see what you take for granted, it’s pretty amazing. They do this just to keep their food cold,” Martin said. “They’re just honest hardworking people.”
The Amish way of life eschews most modern amenities, such as electricity, which is used selectively.
The ice harvest is efficient and free but requires those that receive ice to help with the work.
A 90-foot-by-50-foot section of the pond was shoveled off on Christmas Eve. On Saturday, Miller ran the main 3-foot-in-diameter power saw for making long cuts into the ice while another power saw, similar to a chain saw, was used to cross-cut the section into blocks. A worker then used a 4-foot-long, 5-inch-wide chisel to break the ice from the main ice section because Miller’s saw didn’t cut all the way through the ice.
The blocks were then pushed with 10-foot poles into a main channel and guided with pitch forks toward a wooden ramp positioned under a raised barbwire fence and onto a flatbed trailer. Six to eight blocks at a time were then slid up the 36-foot-long ramp. This was done with the help of Diamond, a cross between a draft and drive horse, who was attached to a rope and a bracket that was stabilized at the end of the row of ice blocks.
A single layer of 100 to 200 blocks of ice can cover the floor of a flatbed, depending on its size. Blocks are off-loaded by hand at the icehouse.
“Your arms get long after you pick these buggers up for a while,” Martin said.