Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bio #26 - The South Saskatchewan River, and The Ice House

We could see the South Saskatchewan River from our kitchen window. Before the three dams were built on the Bow River, the Saskatchewan was a mighty big river. In winter it froze over, sometimes to a depth of four feet or more. We often went skating on it, as far as Redcliff, seven miles away. It was fun. School kids, postmen, dogs and cats took a short cut over the ice, instead of using the bridge. In spring the ice broke up into huge chunks and the odd year, ice jams and flooding were the result. High water in June was awful some years, with chicken houses, dead cattle, chickens, trees and wood floating down in the high, dirty, swift water. It was scary.

But we learned to swim in it too. Mr. Tweed fenced a small part of it off, and taught lots of the neighborhood kids to swim. Later, when I was older, we swam across this river. We would start out to swim by the ice house, and when we finally made it to the other side, the current was strong and although I was a bit scared, I did it. Then after a rest, we walked a mile up along the other bank, for the swim back, and landed somewhere near the ice house again. Now, when I think about the risk we took I believe God was looking out for us.

The ice house was a big dark red building that housed the ice for the city to use in the summer. If you have never been in one you have missed something special.

Across the road lived the owner, who happened to be Japanese, Mr. and Mrs. Figitti, a boy, Keno, and a girl, Kussi. She was my age and a good friend. They were a clean, happy family and they sat on the floor to eat. They were a neat family and I was sorry when they moved away a few years later.

Mr. Figitti let Charlie and me watch them cutting and piling the ice, a layer of straw and a layer of ice, up to the ceiling. I don't know what was used to cut the ice from the river; big saws I guess, it was so thick. Four horses would pull a big flat sleigh onto the river, the men cut the ice and loaded it on the sleigh with some kind of a winch; then a tarpaulin was fastened to cover it, and it was hauled up the incline and stored away. One time when the ice was getting soft, a team, sleigh, and load sunk through. The driver jumped clear but the four horses drowned. It was a sad day. Mr. Williamson was the last man I remember working the ice and shortly after than, most people had refrigerators. So I don't know what happened to the cool old ice house.

The Medicine Hat News had a recent story on the ice house Letty describes, with a photo. Click here to access.

Men harvesting ice in Medicine Hat. Courtesy Esplanade Archives

In an era when refrigerators and freezers are expected amenities in all homes, it is sobering to realize the work that went into providing cool temperatures before refrigeration existed. I recall travelling in Canada by train as a child, when the train's air-conditioning consisted of fans blowing across huge blocks of ice, which had to be replenished at certain stations. I can still see men, using an enormous pair of pincers, lugging the ice into the train.

Our first home in Canada had no refrigerator. I have a vague recollection of an ice-box and someone delivering a large block of ice. However, it was soon replaced by a natural gas refrigerator, which had only enough freezer space for a tray of ice cubes and a pint brick of ice cream.