Tudor, before ever exporting a pound of ice, thought it necessary to have a monopoly in the market he planned to ship to and attempted, unsuccessfully, to arrange that first. He did this both in the Caribbean and Europe.
Before 1860 most ice was being cut in the Hudson River, but a peculiarly warm winter that year sent ice cutters north to find frozen rivers and lakes. That was the beginning of the ice business in Maine. Large scale cutting was done in several rivers, but the Kennebec saw the most production. It had plenty of sawmills to supply sawdust, deep water for the ships that hauled the ice, and a regional labor force to cut the ice.
In 1860 James Cheeseman came to the Kennebec from New York and cut 30,000 tons of ice. He stayed, the business grew, and by the end of the decade he sold out to the Knickerbocker Ice Company. With the money from this sale he built twelve ice houses along the Kennebec at Pittston. Each house was 700 feet long, and combined they held 70,000 tons. More out-of-state companies followed. At the height of the "ice rush" there were sixty ice companies along the Kennebec.
Ice cut in Maine was shipped to southern New England, the southern United States, Cuba, South America, India, China and Japan. Promoted by some dealers as a superior ice, some consumers believed it to have qualities, such as purity and healthfulness, that other ice did not. Maine had the rivers and lakes, the winters to freeze them and the sawmills that generated the sawdust to keep the ice from melting.
To begin, snow was scraped off the ice, then icemen walked with gougers tracing a line with a narrow plow. Following this, horsedrawn groovers cut a deeper, narrow furrow. Another group of men made gouge cuts at a right angle to the first. Then sawyers set in saws, similar to a very large hand saw about 5 feet long with large teeth and a handle gripped with both hands, and cut the checkerboard pattern. A channel was created by sawed off "cakes" which were split off with chesels and floated to the ice house.
Once the blocks were at the ice house end of the channel they were pushed onto the elevator, known as feeding the chain, that pulled them to the top of the ice house. The elevator looked like an escalator, pulled by a chain, that hauled blocks of ice continuously. On the way up they were planed to clean and make them a uniform size. At the top they were shuttled around and packed.
In the summer the reverse was done, except the elevator was not used. Shipping out was done by "dump crews" that slid the ice on wooden runs. The blocks or cakes (22" x 32") were again planed for stowing in the hold of a vessel.
The men who worked for the ice companies in the late 19th century were paid $1.50 to $2.00 a day. There were many different jobs and pay varied according to the job, from foremen at 2 dollars a day to the boy who scooped the horse droppings of the ice at 25 cents a day. His job paid the least, but was probably the most appreciated by elegant South Carolina and Cuban ladies when swirling the ice in their cocktails.
Icemen worked a 10-hour day, six days a week. Many stayed at boarding houses and private homes where they paid 50 cents for three meals and a night's lodging. Loggers often left the woods after a winter's cutting to work for an ice company. Other cutters were recruited from cities and local towns. Among the more important gear, which included wool clothing, were the traction cleats worn on boots. After the snow was scraped off the ice, its surface was slick. Once the ice was cut to form a channel, working along the channel's edge made solid footing a high priority.
One ice house, the John Hancock near Bowdoinham Hill Farm on the Kennebec was built around 1880 and held 50,000 tons. Ice cutting was big in many towns on Merrymeeting Bay. In 1860 there were twelve ice companies in Bowdoinham alone. Thousands of people in Maine were employed in the ice industry by the 1880's. They built the ice houses, cut the ice, boarded the workers and made the sawdust.
By 1886, Kennebec ice production topped the 1 million ton mark and it remained there for a decade. But it all ended quickly. Monopolization, a characteristic from its beginnings as an industry, saw the smaller companies bought up and eventually owned by the Knickerbocker Company. Then refrigeration came along. As early as the late 1700's, Ben Franklin had experimented with ether as a refrigerant. Others at the time had tried sulfuric acid. But it was the development of modern refrigeration that brought an end to harvesting natural ice. The last load of ice waas shipped from the Chelsea Ice House in 1919.
Ice continue to be in demand, but cutting ice pretty much disappeared. Rural areas in Maine had ice houses with ice cut from rivers and lakes into the 1950s. These buildings were sometimes built into the side of a hill, with blocks of ice nearly the size of hay bales stacked like giant bricks and each layer covered with sawdust to insulate it. After the boom in natural ice cutting ended, the scale was more like what it had been before the boom. Modern regrigeration eliminated the cutting of natural ice and would later replace ice as a means of refrigeration.