The John Hancock, or Sagadahoc ice house was located on (or near) Bowdoinham's Hill farm on the Kennebec. Built about 1880, the house held about 50,000 tons. The Richmond Bee of Oct. 18, 1898 says, "the John Hancock Company succeeded in getting out 400 tons of ice last Saturday from the Sagadahoc houses. "
Ice Cutting was an important industry in towns around the Bay in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. 1880 saw twelve ice companies in Bowdoinham, alone. Ice was cut in large blocks and stored in huge ice houses insulated with sawdust.
Ice from Merrymeeting Bay and the rivers that flow into it was shipped all over the world. Englishmen in far off India cooled their drinks with ice cut in the Kennebec and carried, packed in sawdust, in sailing ships.
presented by the 5th & 6th grades
of Dresden School,
celebrates the ice industry
in Dresden, Maine.
The Cathance River offers superior privileges for the harvesting ice. It flows through the Merrymeeting Bay into the Kennebec, some miles above Bath.
The Bay has lately been carefully dredged at the government's expense, and large schooners can find entrance with no difficulty.
One carrying 750 tons of ice was towed out last spring.
The undersigned has grounds all graded for putting up ice buildings at different points on the river.
We have locations and facilities for erecting housed to contain from 3000 to 30,000 tons. To any parties who may, in the future, wish to contract, we shall offer superior advantages, and we invite such to enter into correspondence with us immediately or at their convenience. Or, we would like to have reliable firms enter into partnership with us taking half or three quarters interest, and guaranteeing to buy, every year, the ice harvested.
The quality of the ice secured on the Cathance is always excellent and generally much preferable to that taken from the Kennebec.
Sawdust is given away at the mills on the river.
Direct information, to
The ad above appeared in an 1886 Bowdoinham Advertiser, and delivered an eloquent appeal for more ice business on the Cathance.
Editor's note: Two of Maine's finest writers described the taking of Kennebec ice in books penned about 1930. With appropriate thanks to their publishers, we reprint their stories here.
from Kennebec, Cradle of Americans
Robert P.T. Coffin
Men walked with gougers, tracing the line their narrow plows made straight as a die across the river. After them came the horse-drawn gougers to cut a deeper, double furrow.
Another army of men took up the work at right angles to the first crisscrossing the wide fields.
And then the sawyers came, slow with their loads of shoulder muscle and woolen shirts. They set in their saws and began the cutting of the gigantic checkers from the checkerboards on the hard Kennebec. The men stood to their work with both hands on the handles of their long tools, going down, coming back, fifty men keeping time as they ate into the stuff that meant their life, bed and board.
Every so often the picks and chisels spoke, and the sawed lines lengthened ahead of the sawyers. Noon saw a dozen checkerboards marked out on the ice.
One notable fact about the tools of the ice industry on the Kennebec is this: they were the only tools that were good enough to remain unchanged from the beginning of the industry to the end of it.
The afternoon saw the first great checkers of ice lifted. With heaving of shoulder cant dogs and picks, the square crystals came up into the splendid sunshine, sparkling like emeralds shad ed to azure in their deep hearts, with sections of whole rainbows where the edges were flawed.
Long canals opened up into dark water, and men poled the cakes down to the ends where other men caught them with cant dogs, hoisted them up on the ice, slued them to the runways. Chains clanked, the hooks bit in, and up they flashed along the high lines of steel, and plunged into the icehouses.
Inside, men caught the thundering cakes and switched them, this one to the right, this to the left, each to their places. The walls of cakes rose gradually, aisles of air spaces left between the walls of solid crystal.
The workers here were in their shirt sleeves. They were the youngest of the men, sons more often than fathers. Their work made them glow inside like cookstoves. The sweat down their faces. They stood by the cataracts of ice and flung the bright streams each way, stepping as in a dance to keep clear of a blow that would shatter their bones.
And the house filled up with the ice. Square cakes piled as even and true as the sides of the barn, true and deep blue in the steaming dusk. The men walked between walls of Maine's frozen gold.... A whole nation- knew the taste of the great Kennebec, half the world too . . .
Bruce Blake found the cargo stencil reproduced below, and Clarence Fickett owns the pay envelope reprinted above. Both are mementos of ice cutting days in Bowdoinham.
from A Maine Man In The Making
"The world can't do without Kennebec River ice, and I'll tell you how they get it . . .
First they scrape all the snow off, then they plow it with groovers that cut lines six inches deep. These grooves are 22 inches apart, and are cut both ways.
A cake of ice seven inches thick and 22 inches square weighs a hundred pounds. They like to cut it when it's 14 inches thick, but a good cold snap would raise hob with 'em . . .
After they have a channel sawed out, all they do is split the cakes off with chisels and float 'em down to the icehouse, where the endless chain picks 'em up and snakes 'em to the top of the ramp; then they slide down the chutes by their own heft. The hard job is to catch 'em on the move and switch 'em into place. It takes as many men inside as out . . . . . .
It's the best goldarn business in the world. There's nothing to do but set back and let the river freeze up. It always freezes enough for the whole world, and the world can't do business without it."