Winter took Collingwood by surprise this year and while heavy snow and cold temperatures may come as an unwelcome precursor to a long winter ahead, the icy horizon is a welcome boon to Collingwood’s economy. It was just as important a hundred years ago. Long before the days of tourism, a good freeze on the bay meant an older—and significant—local industry could commence annual operations: ice harvesting.
Employing several local farmers, the ice business got underway each year in late January to early February. The coldest temperatures of the season were needed to ensure that the ice fields in the bay were thick and solid. Before the days of motorized vehicles, the area of ice to be cut out was first cleared of snow and then marked by means of a horse-drawn plough, hand-cut into huge blocks, hauled from the ice field by teams of horses and then loaded onto horse-drawn sleighs.
Around 1901, Alexander (Sandy) Seiggel bought out his employer’s ice harvesting business in the White’s Bay ice fields of Georgian Bay. Several years later, his two sons, Edward and Alexander, took over operations.
Louise (Seiggel) Duggan, Ed’s daughter, remembers when two generations worked together out on the ice. “My grandfather, my dad and my Uncle Alex would leave early in the morning with hot thermoses my mother had packed. They would go out to White’s Bay to meet the men who worked for them during the season. It was the 1940s and jobs were scarce, especially in winter. Anyone who owned a team of horses or a truck might be looking for a job. It was hard work and terribly cold. I remember the horses stamping, and their frosty breath. The men had to keep the horses calm. They didn’t want them moving until the sleigh was fully loaded.”
Duggan recalls the excitement of joining her father and the other ice harvesters for picnic lunches on the ice. “I was about four years old, and my mom would pack a huge lunch and put it in the truck. They still used teams of horses, but they also used trucks to transport the ice. I would sit with my dad and my uncle and my granddad and we would all eat lunch together. I would watch them get another load ready, and then they’d put me back in the truck and send me home.
The harvesting operations of the 1940s had changed little from the turn of the century. “I can see the men now,” says Duggan, “cutting out blocks with enormous saws; they’d cut down into the ice and then they’d grab hold of the block with a long pole with a hook on the end and pull it around to get it onto a loader, which was run by gas or diesel; the block would move along this belt and as each one came up, two men would haul it onto the truck or sleigh.”
Samples were analyzed for purity by the Simcoe County Health Unit before the ice was sold to the public. Harvested ice was packed in sawdust and stored in an ice house located on the Seiggel’s property on Beech St. “The old ice house was just a big barn behind our house,” Duggan recalls. “They packed the ice in layers with sawdust between each layer to keep it from melting. When they unloaded it for delivery in the summer, the sawdust was washed off and the large blocks were cut into smaller blocks about a foot square, just the right size to fit into an icebox.”
In the early days, deliveries were made by horse-drawn cart, a custom that continued long after motorized vehicles were common. “My Uncle Alex didn’t drive very much so he delivered ice on his bicycle,” Duggan recalls. “Customers put a postcard in their window to let my dad know they needed ice. My dad would stop, grab a block of ice from the back of the truck using huge tongs, and take it into the house and put it right into the icebox. A block of ice cost 25 cents.”
By 1951, refrigeration and the availability of affordable hydro made ice cheaper to manufacture than to cut from the bay and the days of the Collingwood ice harvest and door-to-door deliveries were at an end. Ed Seiggel sold out and retired in 1978.
The Seiggel property was sold and the ice house demolished in the fall of 2010. Fortunately, I was given permission to take photographs just hours before the wrecking crews arrived.