People examine artifacts and displays at the “Frozen Kingdom” exhibition at Maine Maritime Museum. Courtesy photo

A new exhibit at Maine Maritime Museum explores how Mainers have relied on raw ingenuity to survive and make a living in the cold North.

The exhibit, “Frozen Kingdom” opened this month and will be on display through April 2020.

“Frozen Kingdom looks at how Mainers have capitalized on the Maine winter and how Mainers have escaped the Maine winter,” said Chris Timm, the museum’s chief curator. “What are the commercial opportunities, but also the leisure opportunities, that Maine’s winter has created?”

The exhibit includes displays related to ice breaking, ice boating, ice fishing, toboggan and boat building, and — perhaps most significant to Maine’s cold-weather economic history — the ice harvesting industry.

Ice was once an expensive luxury item used by the wealthy to chill drinks and preserve food. The growth of the ice harvesting industry was triggered by the invention of the refrigerated ice box in 1802. From there, an innovative entrepreneur from Boston named Frederick Tudor, who later became known as the founder of the natural ice trade and the “Ice King,” tapped into the international market by shipping ice to the West Indies and creating cold storage at harvest locations and arrival ports. By the 1830s, the ice trade began to expand as international shipping routes spread. Ships loaded with ice from New England made their way to warmer climates as far away as India, China, and Australia, and returned to America with sugar, spices, and other exotic commodities.

As the ice industry grew, so did the infrastructure that supported it.

Artifacts on display at the new “Frozen Kingdom” exhibit at Maine Maritime Museum. Courtesy photo

“There was this huge span [in the ice harvesting industry].” Timm said. “A lot of people would flood a local pond, and harvest ice for local consumption for their own use in Maine. There were also these huge companies with huge clout building these massive warehouses along the river to store hundreds of thousands of pounds of ice for export.”

Within the next few decades, one invention was responsible for the explosive growth of the industry: the home ice box. People ordered quantities of ice for home delivery to store fresh meat and produce in their homes, alleviating the need for frequent trips to the store. In 1865, refrigerated rail cars were developed to transport perishable products across the rapidly growing network of railroads, further increasing the demand for ice. Produce growers, meat packers and dairy farmers were now able to ship products worldwide.

“One of the things that we’ll have on display is a replica of a large ice map, which shows all the infrastructure along the river and where all the ice houses were,” said Timm. “They were rising to meet the demand and capitalizing on it. All the tools, all the specialized services … there was even ice insurance against loss. All these businesses cropped up to support this industry.”

Maine developed a reputation as the home of high quality ice, pushing it to the forefront of the booming industry in the late 19th century. Companies from across the country came to Maine to harvest ice, making it the premiere destination for harvesters. In 1882, two-thirds of Maine’s 1.5 million ton ice harvest came from the Kennebec River, where 25,000 men converged each winter to make their fortunes.

The “Frozen Kingdom” exhibit opened recently at Maine Maritime Museum, displaying historical artifacts and detailing the story of Maine’s ice harvesting industry, among other cold-weather history. Courtesy photo

“We were going through archival photos and we found a lot of advertisements on the sides of wagons in New York and D.C. that are proudly advertising that they have Kennebec Ice, which was advertised as being pure and reliable and the best quality ice you could get,” Timm said. “It was really nationally known.”

Harvesters developed tools for increased efficiency as they devised ways to cut, preserve, and transport ice blocks weighing 300 to 400 pounds in dangerous conditions.

By the 1930s, technology became the ice industry’s undoing with the invention of the electric refrigerator. Although ice harvesting continued on the local level, Maine was no longer a major player in the national and international markets.

“Unfortunately, ice harvesting is a thing of the past. I do not think a lot of people know just how important ice harvesting was in Maine,” said Ken Lincoln, President of The Thompson Ice House Harvesting Museum in South Bristol. “It is a tradition I am afraid would be lost if someone does not keep it going. Our goal is to keep ice harvesting alive for future generations.”

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