Ice harvesting for meat, agriculture, and milk preservation purposes was an important seasonal business prior to the refrigeration era in New England. Local ponds and lakes throughout the northeastern states supplied harvested ice to businesses and residents. Ice harvesting on a large scale began in Massachusetts in the early 1800’s, and the region shipped ice as far south as the Caribbean islands.
Ice harvesting in Westborough was at first performed by local farmers and at least two competing milk companies during the 1860’s. Large institutional customers were the Lyman School and Westborough State Hospital, as were the local raw-milk producers. Residential users and local downtown business owners all used harvested ice from Lake Chauncy.
Although the ice was free to harvest, doing so required easy access to the source, ice storage barns, specialized tools, a significant labor force, and transportation. In the beginning, ice cutting was a labor-intensive operation using hand tools, but the process evolved with the use of mechanical cutters. Ice harvesting began as soon as the ice reached a minimum of six inches thick. It was cut with hand saws at various depths by 16 inches wide and 30 inches long for easy handling, storage and transportation.
From 1836, milk produced by local dairy farmers supplied the Boston market via the Boston & Worcester Railroad. Milk was shipped raw from Westborough without processing or refrigeration. Its life span was established at two hours fifteen minutes and needed to be quickly transported and delivered to Boston milk peddlers. Meanwhile, Boston-based milk companies bought numerous tracts of land on the east and south shorelines of Lake Chauncy to harvest the ice for the milk cars of the railroad for the trip to Boston. The Westborough rail yard was easily accessed by area dairy farmers and established Westborough as the primary depot to supply milk to the Boston market. The availability of Chauncy ice became a significant benefit to the milk producers, who could then refrigerate the milk cars and increase the milk’s longevity.
Under the leadership of Cyrus Brigham of Westborough and Whittemore Rowell of Boston, the Westboro Milk Co. was established in 1859 and was shipping eight milk cars a day amounting to a thousand cans per day; 750 cans per day were provided by 150 dairy farms in Westborough and the remainder from adjacent communities. It became the largest milk business in the world amounting to $1,000,000 dollars a year. These cars relied on Chauncy ice to help keep the milk from spoiling (History of Westborough, DeForest).
Chauncy Lake Ice
The first documented deed identifying an ice harvesting operation on Lake Chauncy was in 1863. Alexander Kinder, a yeoman with a farm located on the road to the reform school and abutting the lake, sold a 6,000-square-foot parcel that accessed the lake to Daniel Fisher representing the Westboro Milk Co. for $100. The parcel included a right of way from the town road. A large ice storage barn was then built near the shore (Source: masslandrecords, 664-621).
In 1865, James A. Kelley sold to George Fisher, representing the Westboro Milk Association, a parcel of land with a building for $370.67. The 6,000 square-foot lot was bounded on the northwest by the shoreline and Kinder’s barn. The lot was accessed by a right of way for horse teams and workers over Kinder’s property (Source: masslandrecords, 708-395).
In 1868 James Miller, acting for the Milk Producers’ Association, a Boston-based milk consortium, purchased one acre on the Chauncy shoreline from George Brigham for $200. This tract was located at the northwest corner of the lake southwesterly to land of Elmer Brigham, westerly to the lake and northerly to the State Reform School (Source, masslandrecords: 776-494).
Then in 1874, the Westboro Milk Co. dissolved and sold the lake holdings to Cyrus Brigham, Whittemore Rowell & Jonathon Fay the above parcel for $75.00, on the Chauncy shoreline with the State Reform School property on the northwest, southerly to Elmer Brigham with Lyman Street on the east (Source, masslandrecords: 941-256-257).
By 1875, the C. Brigham Milk Co. with Whittemore Rowell was established and began to buy and sell properties on the lake. The new company first sold to Joseph D. Brown of Cambridge a parcel bordering the Elmer Brigham land by the road from the Kinder’s farm to the State Reform School at the northeasterly side of the new ice house (Source, masslandrecords: 947-626).
The Westboro Milk Association was dissolved in 1878 and sold to C. Brigham Milk Co., Rowell of Boston, and Joseph Fay of Northborough, along with a 6,000-square-foot parcel with a building, between Kinder’s barn and shoreline, at the northwest corner of the lot, with a right of way over Kinder’s farm road (Source, masslandrecords: 1028-583).
By the beginning of the 20th century, William Sullivan, a Westborough selectman and road commissioner, purchased the majority of the properties on the east and south sides of Lake Chauncy. These properties were previously owned by the Boston Milk Co. and the C. Brigham Milk Co. that no longer needed harvested ice for milk preservation. A majority of the remaining Chauncy shoreline was owned by the Lyman School and the state hospital.
When Whittemore Rowell died in 1890, his Chauncy holdings were sold to William Sullivan, including a lot with an ice house on Lake Chauncy with a right of way from the town road. This deed appears to be Sullivan’s introduction to the ice-harvesting business (Source, masslandrecords: 1466-353).
The C. Brigham Milk Co. sold to Sullivan in 1898 a lot of land between the shoreline and the northwest side of the grantee barn with an ice house 60 feet from the road (Source, masslandrecords: 1570-278).
Cyrus Brigham was born in Westborough in 1839 and lived his life there. He died in 1899 at his summer home in Hull when he was 60 years old.
In 1900 William Sullivan purchased two separate tracts on the shoreline of Lake Chauncy from James A. Kelley representing the Boston Milk Co. One tract of land was purchased for $290, with an ice house bounded easterly and southerly by Lyman and Chauncy streets, southerly by a brook running into Lake Chauncy, and northeast by land of C. Brigham Milk Co. (Source, masslandrecords: 649-342, 1659-195).
Additionally, the C. Brigham Milk Co. sold to William Sullivan a piece of land with an ice house located on the shoreline near the intersection of Chauncy and Lyman Street. The buildings above are Sullivan’s boat and ice house on Chauncy Street. In 1901 this site became part of the Lake Chauncy Park built by the Marlborough and Westborough Street Railway. The pine grove to the right later became Cunniff’s Lodge (Source: masslandrecords 1656-613. 1900 1636-578-579).
Lyman School & Insane Asylum
The Lyman School on top of Powder Hill (1885) in the background overlooks this huge ice house located between the school and the hospital property on the north side of Chauncy. For years, it supported Lyman School and the hospital with harvested Chauncy ice to help preserve the vegetables and prepared meat to feed the hundreds of boys, patients and staff throughout the year.
Unfortunately, Lyman for many years had not been treating its human waste, rather allowing it to seep into the soil that filtered downhill to the Chauncy shoreline. Eventually this created a major health issue by contaminating the lake water and impacting ice harvesting on the lake. Lyman was then ordered by the state health board to hook up to Westborough’s sewer system and cease ice harvesting operations.
George H. Rogers
On August 31, 1901 George Rogers sold to Frank W. Forbes, a one acre lot without a building previously owned by William Sullivan. Rogers was deeded a right of way to harvest ice with men and teams of horses and hoist the ice blocks into an adjacent storage barn (Source, masslandrecords: 1695-587).
On January 1, 1910, Wm. Sullivan leased to G. Rogers two ice houses on the shoreline of land bounded on the north by the Marlboro and Westboro Railway, east by Chauncy Street, south by land of the lessor, and west by the lake. The lease was for a 12-year period for $250 a year (Source, masslandrecords: 1923-38).
Mason Taft….On the Turnpike
Mason Taft, originally of Mendon, managed a successful farm on the Turnpike at the corner of Lyman Street circa 1895. There were 10 acres of land from the Turnpike northerly along the east side of Lyman Street. The farm consisted of a house with a barn, silo, hen house, and tool shed, 11 dairy cows, chickens, and a horse and wagon.
In 1910, Taft bought two parcels of land to access the ice harvesting rights of Lake Chauncy from George Rogers. Both parcels were one and one third acre and bordered both the lakeshore on the north and the Forbes property. One parcel bordered the Forbes property on the east, the river on the north, and the road on the east. The other parcel bordered the Forbes land on the west and the road to the Insane Hospital on the west (Source, masslandrecords: 1927-578).
William Sullivan sold the last of his holdings to Mason Taft in 1912. The parcel with an ice house bordered property of the Marlboro & Westboro Railway and was located on the northerly corner of Chauncy and southerly along Lyman Street (Source, masslandrecords: 2015-305).
Axel H. Anderson of Worcester, purchased from Mason Taft two tracts of land in 1925. Tract 1 ran from the northerly corner of Marlborough & Westborough Railway land east to Lyman St. and along the lakeshore without an ice permit. The second, a triangular lot between Lyman and Chauncy streets, ran southerly to the river that flows into the lake and sold for $2,000 (Source, masslandrecords: 2385-383-4).
In May of 1926 Mason Taft suffered a $12,000 loss when the big ice house barn on Chauncy Cove that was filled with ice was destroyed by a fire of suspicious origin. Taft never rebuilt the barn as the ice business was declining with the popularity of electric home refrigeration. In 1938 Mason Taft retired from farming and the ice business when he sold his property on the Turnpike and Lake Chauncy Ice Co. and moved to 4 School Street.
Before this area became an industrial site in 1928, it was owned by the Neopolitan Ice Cream & Confections Co. of Cambridge. The company harvested ice from Hocomonco Pond and shipped it via train to its Cambridge facility for the manufacture of ice cream. When electrically powered refrigeration became popular, harvesting ice became passé.
In March 1905, Eldredge Davis, a Cambridge based manufacturer of ice cream and confections purchased an unspecified amount of land on the south side of Hocomonco Pond and the north side of the Boston and Albany Railroad with a right of way to Fisher Street from the heirs of William Pierce of Shrewsbury (Source, masslandrecords: 1152-557, 1504-574).
An ice run or slide supported by stone piers to the shore of the pond was constructed. The ice blocks were cut into large blocks and slid across the ice by horse and pulled up and along the slide to be loaded into the ice house that was 130 x 280 feet. Storage sheds of varying size and a horse stable were on site. A long driveway snaked through the property from Otis Street to the eastern side of the spur line and exited by a right of way over the rails to Fisher Street.
In January of 1923 the ice house collapsed causing $20,000 worth of damage and ruined 30,000 tons of ice. Following this event, the site was abandoned and became the Montan (Source, masslandrecords, 1815-339, 1818-176, 53-35, 2348-263-264).
Although ice harvesting for residential and commercial use on a large scale is totally gone, it remained in the rural residential areas until electric refrigeration appliances became the norm. Today, Lake Chauncy is a popular fishing and swimming location.
Glenn R. Parker
Research Materials and Notes:
Refrigeration World vol. 39… Cold Storage and Ice Trade Journal
Westborough Assessors Report…Westborough 1897 map
History of the Boston & Worcester Railroad – Milk Train
Trustees Report, Lyman School for Boys