Out on the Ice

Photograph by Federico Pardo, from the exhibit Ice Shanties: Fishing, People and Culture.

Photograph by Federico Pardo, from the exhibit Ice Shanties: Fishing, People and Culture.


This month we are excited to present the first in a series of monthly blog posts from our Jane Beck Folklife Fellow, archivist Susan Creighton . Between April and December Susan will share insights into her work and interesting things she comes across in the collection. As winter gradually transitions to spring, and inspired by our current on-site exhibit, Ice Shanties: Fishing, People & Culture, this month Susan shares some archival bits related to ice fishing and other winter activities on our frozen lakes.

Out on the Ice

Susan Creighton

Spring (finally!) seems to be arriving in Vermont, but just last month various news outlets let us know that Lake Champlain was completely frozen over—something that had not happened since February 2015. That stated, in keeping with March's motto of "In like a lion, out like a lamb," weather forecasters also cautioned the public to be aware of melting ice and unpredictable conditions for those venturing out onto the surface of the lake as spring thaw slowly began. So in this blog post, I'm going to share with you a couple of stories from the Vermont Folklife Center Archives of people's experiences venturing out onto the ice, while being mindful of the spring thaw.

Albert Morelli of Champlain, New York is the son of Frank Morelli who emigrated from Italy as a teenager. As a young boy, Albert worked with his father, going out onto the lake and harvesting ice for local ice houses. He remembers his father hiring local farmers with sleighs to draw ice from the lake up to the ice house:

The farmers used to get in there about 9 o'clock in the morning, that gave them a chance to get their chores done on the farm, with their sleighs and teams of horses. Dad would have a crew down there early in the morning cutting. When they first started out, they cut with hand saws. I've got some up in the attic in the garage that I kept. They're about maybe 6 foot long, about 2 inch teeth on them. Then one of the men that worked for dad come up with the idea of building a power saw with a gasoline engine on it, which worked very good. Had a great big wheel on it. He'd get down early in the morning and cut, and by the time the farmers got there, the ice was ready to move. They'd have a chute that would go down into the water, they'd push the cakes over there and pull them with pike poles. And the cable horses, they'd put a sling like around the cakes, the team of horses would pull them up onto the wagons. The wagons were only so high off the ground. Once a wagon got loaded the farmer would drive his team up to the ice house and they'd unload them there. He'd have a pretty good size crew working in the ice house because once they started pulling it up into the ice house, they had one crew that would place the ice cakes side by side, and another crew that would put sawdust on them. They put a layer of sawdust, layer of ice, layer of sawdust, layer of ice until it filled up. The ice house was about maybe I'd say about 100 foot long, and pretty close to 50, 60 feet wide. Maybe about 24 feet high.

Mr. Morelli goes on to talk about the process of shipping the ice by wagon and by train, recalling various destinations and clients, and provides a vivid picture of the entire process, including the occasional accident where someone goes through the ice into the water. You can hear his full interview by visiting the Vermont Folklife Center. Find more information about how to do so here: https://www.vermontfolklifecenter.org/information-and-services

Ice fishing is a popular topic of discussion in many of the oral histories about life on and with Lake Champlain. Kenny Miller of Clarenceville, Québec recalls springtime ice fishing with a seine:

What you do to start you make holes and you push a board underneath the ice with the rope tied to it to get your rope where you want. At each corner you got big holes, then when you go to put your seine in, you tied the seine on the end of the rope, then you tie another rope on the seine. And the guy at the other end is pulling the seine under, and the seine is going under the ice and a rope is following. So the next time you make a hole you got your rope under the ice. So it's twice the rope to fish under the ice, but that's all it is is just there's rope being used a follower for the next hole. Save running a board every time. It's very simple if you saw it done. ..... They'd make a hole about maybe 6 by 10, 6 by 12. With the sun and the weather and by the seine coming in and out of there, the hole got bigger and bigger all the time. You would have to watch it in the spring though because the ice gets bad. You have to plan on getting your cabin and everything off before the ice gets too bad. Because the season was from 15th of March to 15th of April. On the 15th of April, you're not out there.

These two interviews are part of a larger collection of various oral history interviews in the "Lake Champlain" collection, comprised of over 30 hours of interviews with inhabitants of Vermont, New York and Québec who share their memories and experiences of life on Lake Champlain. 

As always, the many audio interviews and surrounding materials (photos, scrapbooks, letters, etc.) found in the VFC Archives are open to the public for viewing, by appointment. You can also visit the Vision and Voice Gallery to see the current "Ice Shanties" exhibit, a collection of photos and audio excerpts capturing life out on the ice and the communities that develop around ice fishing. https://www.vermontfolklifecenter.org/exhibits-feed/iceshanties Keep an eye out for an upcoming "Vermont Untapped" podcast https://www.vermontfolklifecenter.org/untapped-blog/teaser devoted to ice fishing, and some related, newly-digitized audio interviews made available on our website.

If you are a fan of the lake in winter, you may also want to explore some of the Lake Champlain Basin Program's (LCBP) public outreach programs, such as the "Love the Lake" series of talks during the winter. Love the Lake is designed to bring locals together to discuss Lake Champlain issues with historians, researchers, anglers, wildlife biologists and the LCBP staff. The presenters are passionate about their topics and help the audience learn about many natural and cultural resources.

You can also use the resources on the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership to find information about the rich cultural history of the region. http://www.champlainvalleynhp.org/index.htm