It’s fascinating to look at the ice business in the years before electric refrigeration. From the harvesting of ice from ponds and rivers, the storage of ice in large ice houses filled with sawdust, and the eventual delivery of ice blocks by the “ice man,” right into the ice boxes in people’s homes, it was a very different way of life.

The winter harvest became a great source of work for many local men, who appreciated the chance to earn some money in the winter months.

Portrait of D.W. Clark. South Portland Historical Society image

Most local histories have documented David Robinson as the first person to go into the ice business in Portland. Robinson started in 1823 by building himself an ice cellar on Munjoy Hill that measured 10 feet by 8 feet and was 10 feet deep in the ground. It held about 10 tons of ice which he used in his confectionery business. He was one of the first to make and serve ice cream in Portland.

Robinson would build a second ice cellar on Cumberland Street in 1828 that had the capacity for about 60 tons of ice. He reportedly started selling ice about 1831 and built the first above-ground ice house in 1832 on the corner of Congress and Centre streets, near Market Square (now Monument Square).

As we’ve looked into the history of ice cutting in Maine and South Portland, it is easy to see the competitive nature of the business. Most any small ice harvesting operation that showed success would be acquired by a larger company.

David Robinson’s ice business would be sold and became Foster & Cartwright around 1851, then sold again and became part of Sebago Lake Ice Company. In 1854, Dennis Woodruff Clark, who went by “D.W.,” moved his family to Maine from California and took a job with Sebago Lake Ice in its ice harvesting operation.

In 1855, Clark purchased the company and changed the name of the business to the D.W. Clark Ice Company.

The Clark and Chaplin ice house at Barberry Creek. South Portland Historical Society photo

D.W. Clark grew the company and was an influential member of the Greater Portland business community. In addition to owning and operating D.W. Clark Ice Company, he was also a director of the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad, he became president of Portland Water Company in 1873, and he was one of the investors/incorporators of Ligonia Iron Works (a predecessor company of the Bancroft and Martin Rolling Mills).

D.W. Clark harvested from Long Creek (near Westbrook Street) and Barberry Creek. We can see on an 1871 atlas that while there was an ice house at Barberry Creek, the dam had not yet been built.

For anyone not familiar with Barberry Creek, that is the creek that runs next to the section of the Greenbelt Walkway by Dock’s Seafood, and which runs through a culvert under Broadway and empties into the Fore River by Forest City Cemetery.

The company would also maintain an ice harvesting operation at Sebago Lake. The Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad turned out to be an excellent method of transporting the ice from the lake to the Portland waterfront. From there, ice could either go out on ice wagons for retail delivery or could be sold wholesale and loaded onto large cargo-carrying sailing vessels.

Ice cutting at the Clark and Chaplin site on Barberry Creek. Once cut, the ice blocks would travel up the conveyor belt and into the ice house, to be packed in sawdust. South Portland Historical Society photo

On April 1, 1873, D.W. Clark brought in the brothers Ashbel and Alonzo Chaplin as his partners in the ice business and changed the company name to D.W. Clark & Co. Ashbel Chaplin was born in Naples in 1838. Just prior to moving to the Portland area, he had been a grocer in Bridgton. In addition to being a partner in the ice company, Ashbel also owned a grist mill at Stroudwater.

In May of 1879, D.W. Clark & Co. petitioned the Portland Harbor Commissioners for permission to build a wharf and a dam with a water gate at the mouth of Barberry Creek. In July 1879, an announcement appeared in the Portland Daily Press, “A contractor is to build a dam of stone and earth across Barberry Creek, Cape Elizabeth, for D.W. Clark & Co, the ice dealers; thus will be formed a large pond upon which it is intended to cut large quantities of ice next winter.”

In a report of an accident taking place, we learn that D.W. Clark & Co. was in the midst of erecting a new larger ice house on the banks of Barberry Creek in October of 1881. That ice house was enormous for its time, able to hold about 40,000 tons of ice.

The company incorporated in 1882 as the Clark and Chaplin Ice Company, with D.W. Clark as its president and Ashbel Chaplin as treasurer. At this point, the company had ice houses at Sebago Lake, Cape Elizabeth (Long Creek and Barberry Creek), Bowdoinham and Pittston (on the Kennebec River), with a total ice storage capacity of about 200,000 tons.

Clark and the Chaplins were always looking to find better and more efficient ways to harvest ice. In 1883, Alonzo Chaplin secured a U.S. patent on an ice cutting machine. Then, in 1885, D.W. Clark secured a U.S. patent on a machine that would clean the snow from ice and shape the ice into convenient sizes to cut. He used the Portland company to manufacture them. Clark and Chaplin began using them in Cape Elizabeth and Clark also sold some to other ice cutting operations.

Alonzo and Ashbel Chaplin both died unexpectedly – Alonzo in 1888 and Ashbel in 1889. Alonzo’s son, Joseph F. Chaplin, would continue in the business, as would Ashbel’s son, Flavel Chaplin.

Early in 1893, D.W. Clark established a new company with his son, Mervin W. Clark, using his old, original company name. The D.W. Clark Ice Company formed in March, 1893, and bought, from Clark and Chaplin Ice Company, its Sebago Lake property and everything related to its retail ice delivery business in Portland.

Clark and Chaplin Ice Company held onto all of its properties in Cape Elizabeth and along the Kennebec River, and remained only in the wholesale ice business.

In later years, Clark and Chaplin (the wholesale business) was sold to Consolidated Ice Company, and then Consolidated itself came under the umbrella of the American Ice Company, a huge New York firm that controlled ice cutting over much of the state.

The last full harvest at Barberry Creek was in 1906 and in the ensuing two years, the company only harvested about half of what it had previously. The decline in the business was attributed to the “new” artificial production of ice. American Ice Company had a growing capacity to manufacture its own ice and it became much less expensive to manufacture ice closer to the city where it was needed versus harvesting ice in a far-off state like Maine, and then having to incur the costs of shipping the ice to New York and cities beyond.

The remaining retail ice business known as D.W. Clark Ice Company was acquired by E.G. Beechwood Ice Company in 1910. By January of 1912, the company president E.G. Beechwood had resigned due to ill health. The stockholders decided to change the company name to Portland Sebago Ice Company and named the following as the company’s officers: LeRoy Tobie, president; E.J. Vannah, treasurer; and Flavel Chaplin (Ashbel Chaplin’s son) was the company superintendent. Flavel’s son (Ashbel’s grandson) Donald also worked for the company as an engineer.

Ice harvesting at Clark’s Pond on Westbrook Street continued through the 1950s, run by Portland Sebago Ice Company. The South Portland Fire Department burned the ice house down in a controlled burn in January 1962.

Note: The South Portland Historical Society is holding its membership drive. If you enjoy reading about South Portland history, please consider renewing your membership, or becoming a new member of the South Portland Historical Society. A one-year family membership is only $25 and supports our mission of preserving local history. Donations can be made through our Online Museum website at, or if you’d prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail to us at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. Thank you. If you need to contact the society, we can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 207-767-7299.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director for the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]

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