Thursday, February 6, 2003

Even among the Amish, ice cutting today's nearly a lost art

By John Gladden
The Medina Gazette

SULLIVAN, Ohio - Out here, where the land is flat and the horizon low, the sun starts work early.

So does John Miller.

Daybreak on a recent day found him on his neighbor Shirley Baisden's frozen pond.

It was good weather for making ice, if you happened to be a pond, but not the most pleasant conditions for harvesting the first crop of the new year. Before sundown, Miller would cut and store 21 tons of ice, enough to last his family into September.

His family doesn't consume the ice itself.

"We use the ice to cool things," he said. "We don't put it into things, like you people do."

Cutting slippery 625-pound blocks from a pond - as dangerous as it is difficult - and stacking them tightly in a barn is not simple.

With an ax and tape measure, two young men began marking off the ice in 10-foot sections. Others readied the saw as Miller called out instructions.

The saw has two wooden handles, like a walk-behind plow or cultivator, and along the bottom are six long, steel teeth. An outrigger-style guide keeps it upright and steady.

After the sections were marked off, the boys pushed the saw by hand, following the ax marks and scoring the ice. Then they made a second set of lines, perpendicular to the first and 18 inches apart. The saw guide rode in the channel of the previous cut, keeping the lines uniform.

When they'd finished, the surface of the pond was a grid of long rectangles, each 18 inches wide and 10 feet long.

Now it was the horse's turn. With Miller directing them, the young men hitched the animal to the saw.

One boy led the horse, another balanced himself on top of the saw to give it some weight, and a third held the handles to guide it.

As it went along, the saw bit into the frozen pond, cutting about 2 inches with each pass. It made a low, grinding, sweeping sound, like a heavy piece of furniture being dragged across a hardwood floor.

Despite the temperature, the men wore regular work clothes, along with jackets, gloves, rubber boots and black, wide-brimmed hats.

It's no fun walking on ice, much less working. It helps to have a horse with new shoes because they still have sharp edges and give the animal better traction, Miller said.

They cut along the score lines until Miller judged the saw was almost through to the water. With a long, heavy metal bar, he broke a hole in the ice near the outline of one of the cakes.

Using big, toothy handsaws as tall as they were, two boys finished the cutting on the first piece. Once it was loose, they pried it up and out, using the metal bar and ice tongs.

Miller and one of the boys dragged the 625-pound slab to the pond's edge where it would be put on a sled and taken to the barn by horses.

Days before, Miller had scraped the snow from the top of the pond. A blanket of snow insulates it from the cold air, keeping the ice from thickening.

Five days earlier, the ice had been 5 inches deep. Miller pulled out a tape measure and checked the first cake. It was 8 inches thick, right on the money.

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