History repeats itself on a frozen pond in Brookfield
There's something vaguely menacing about the T-shaped hole in the white ice, the rough wooden derrick dangling on a chain nearby. Sharp and mysterious things sit on tables or in the snow, and clots of children gravitate toward a team of apple-rumped horses straight out of a Bruegel painting. The horses are hitched to thin air, and wait with a terrible equine patience. About a hundred people stand in the white winter sunshine, also waiting. The scene is almost medieval, and if we didn't know this was an ice harvest, we might imagine it had something to do with dunking witches.
This air of oddness is deliberate and attractive — for 21 years, Al Wilder of Brookfield has been stage-managing this harvesting demonstration on Sunset Lake in Pond Village. For just as long, people have come to watch the compelling, repetitive ballet of coaxing ice out of its natural habitat and into a manmade one. It's a reenactment of what resident Ed Koren calls “a pre-electrical ritual,” and his use of the word “ritual” is perfectly accurate. If it were not a ritual, this annual event would be deadly boring.
There are moments, in fact, when it is boring, and the small crowd begins to chatter and wander off. But then the ice saw is lifted again, the surface is fractured away, and brittle skim on the open water is broken by the passage of a huge, neat cube, tremendously heavy and yet floating with a kind of miraculous convenience. The derrick with its black tongs descends, the ice lifts, and the moment that it hangs in midair seems full of surprise, scrutiny and celebration. A tape measure proves the ice is 22 inches thick. Twenty-two inches! Do we need further proof of the depth of the Vermont winter?
The modern-day ice-cutting ritual began in 1980, but the seed was planted in 1977, when Wilder, who then lived at one end of Brookfield's moderately famous Floating Bridge, woke up to a ruckus out on the pond. He got out of bed to investigate and found a handful of local men cutting and moving the ice and calling out directions to each other in the cold. Sound carries well in the crystal air. The process caught his interest. “I waited for them to do it again the next year, but they never did,” Wilder says. “I missed it.”
Before the coming of the power lines, ice was harvested, usually twice each winter. Most of the Brookfield ice was sold to the railroad, which used blocks of the cold stuff to keep produce and dairy products fresh during the long ride to distant urban markets. It was also used in homes during the summer months, and Wilder remembers early iceboxes with their thick walls, heavy doors and fragrant puddles. Wrestling with the block ice was an ongoing chore: “They were a pain,” he summarizes. “After the First World War, the first thing most people did was get an electric icebox and an automobile.”
Wilder doesn't say this sadly, but pragmatically: He's really not a back-to-the-land Luddite who yearns for the olden days. What he does yearn for, it seems, is a use for 19th-century tools that have stubbornly endured into the 21st century. He talks like a man who doesn't like to see things go to waste.
The agenda of the Brookfield ice harvest is startlingly simple: everyone has a go at extracting pre-scored blocks of ice. This is advanced under the vague cloak of conducting a contest — the fastest harvester gets a night at the Green Trails Inn — but the contest is curiously uncompetitive. Advice is abundant. Someone writes down times, but there is no hurry. The contest is both a ploy and an invitation — just try this, it beckons. And people do, signing up not so much in hopes of winning but because Wilder makes it so easy, and because it's obviously okay to be inept.
The long ice saw, dark with age, slides through the ice. “It cuts on the down stroke,” Wilder says, over and over. “All the work is done going down.”
Cutting the ice is hard work. It's tricky and tiring, and the sore-armed contestants learn perhaps a little more than they wanted to know about their rural heritage. The pleasures are real enough — it's fun to be dressed warmly for a day outdoors, like a figure from an old and honorable painting. But there is also the discomfort of indulging in the vaguely self-flagellating Vermont ethos: “It's good to suffer a little hardship,” says Wilder.
People do suffer, too, mostly from the cold; one memorable year the wind chill set the thermometer at about 40 below. The people came anyway, padded and layered to the point of immobility. The only times the ice-cutting “festival” has been cancelled was on account of rain. “To some degree it's something to do at a time of year when there isn't much to do,” Wilder concedes. Brookfield is a quiet place under any circumstances, but the quiet in January can be downright deafening.
Brookfield's First Cartoonist Ed Koren, who produces strange and memorable drawings for national magazines like the New Yorker, calls the annual harvest both a historical moment and a social one: People use the annual harvest to reconnect with the past and with each other. In the final analysis, it's a ritual about community. Both Koren and Wilder credit the continuity of the event to reliance on the “old guys” — area residents Phil Neil, Bill Osgood, John Harford and Wendell Savery — to give the day on the ice its authenticity and spark.
“Most of them have shuffled off the mortal coil by now,” says Koren, “but they were there to get it started.” They understood the ice — not just how to cut it, but its commercial and historical importance. “We are still using a derrick that Phil Neil designed to lift the ice,” says Wilder, “and the beauty of it is that one person can set it up and use it. It's made so that a 150-pound person can haul out a 250-pound block of ice without needing any help. That's self-reliance for you.”
Almost everyone involved in preserving rural culture talks about the accompanying values of self-reliance, courage, ingenuity and thrift. But that nostalgia often carries a judgment. The listener can come away feeling pampered and guilty, as if the hardships of modern life were not hardships at all but minor and transient annoyances. The ice harvest, though, is subtly different from demonstrations of how to make 19th-century toys out of rags and cornhusks, mostly because these toys are depressing and no fun to play with.
The ice is different — both timeless and transitory. Impressive as the blocks may be, a run of warm weather will erase them.
Here and there across the pond people are snowshoeing, while members of the volunteer fire department sell raffle tickets. Everyone bets on the date the ice goes out on Sunset Lake — a bet about the advent of spring. Meanwhile, some students from the New England Culinary Institute are roughing out an ice sculpture with a chainsaw, and by noon they produce a competent, if slightly lopsided, basket that evokes Easter.
All this activity is optimistic, small-scale and forward-looking, but it's also peripheral to the central repetitive drama. Another block is sawn and broken away, then poked along with a kind of majestic slowness down the dark, open channel to be lifted, dripping, by the late Phil Neil's contraption. “That's a good one,” judges a spectator behind me, though it's hard not to notice that the blocks are all equally good, and interchangeable.
A soft, puttering noise — applause with mittens —indicates the release of tension, which marks a good ritual and is what ritual sets out to do.
But Wilder is worried: “If I have to stop doing this,” he says, “the harvest may end. People get old, you know. I'm getting older, and it bothers me that when I quit or die that the ice harvest will go with me.”
And it may. The charms of this event are subtle and, like the work of the ice saw, largely in the down stroke — it makes no real money, the parking is a pain, and it's hard on the feet no matter how many socks you wear.
“Are you ready to go yet?” asks someone else behind me. “Are your feet cold?”
“Let's stay,” is the answer. “I just want to see the next one.”
Helen Husher is the author of Off the Leash: Subversive Journeys Around Vermont. She writes regular features about unorthodox destinations around the state.