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The retail ice industry near Barrie, Ontario

July 25, 2016

Let's explore the retail ice business, shall we? It was an industry which was a fixture in the day-to-day lives of people, not to mention railway and truck operations, during the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Our focus will be the goings-on in the vicinity of Barrie, Ontario, on Lake Simcoe, situated on the Northern Railway, later absorbed by the Grand Trunk and subsequently part of the Newmarket Subdivision of the CNR Allandale Division. For background information, thanks goes to the Winchester family (Reg, Barb & Roger) of Barrie and Helen Cundall (nee Baxter). I had recently interviewed them when I originally put this piece together on May 1, 2000.


The above image is from the Innisfil Historical Society. It shows the Knickerbocker Ice Company at Bell Ewart in 1906.

In the railway steam era, spring-fed Lake Simcoe was reputedly the purest body of fresh water in Canada. South of Allandale, on Cook's Bay (part of Lake Simcoe) was the village of Bell Ewart. In 1876, this former lumbering community had all the other crucial components for becoming a giant in the ice harvesting business:  proximity to Toronto and large northeastern American cities; within a stone's throw of a railway line, and the right-of-way for the former lumber spur intact; an idle labour force (local farmers) during the critical late Winter-early Spring season. Just when the large sawmill burned down to signal the end of the lumbering era and impending ghost town status, Bell Ewart came back to life with the massive ice harvesting industry.

When the growing city of Toronto became too large for its local ice supply, a businessman named Fairhead established the Springwater Ice Company in 1876 at Lefroy, about a mile away from Bell Ewart, at the closest railway point (on the Northern Railway). Alfred Chapman followed in 1891 with his Belle Ewart Ice Company, adding the "e" to the village name to make it sound more quaint on Toronto delivery wagons. His facility was located on the water's edge beside his competitor, and the two of them generated enough business to justify re-laying the railway spur in 1892. The lake's growing reputation spawned a name change two years later, when the former Springwater Ice Company became the Lake Simcoe Ice & Fuel Company.  Twelve years later in 1906, the Knickerbocker Ice Company located at Bell Ewart, and the heyday of ice harvesting was underway.

This was no small-scale industry.  Lake Simcoe Ice & Fuel boasted 18 separate rooms in its ice house, each 100 feet deep by 30 feet wide by 30 feet high. Belle Ewart had twelve to fourteen ice house compartments, each 150 feet deep by 30 feet wide by 30 feet high. Armies of men and horses invaded the lakeshore in late winter, when the ice reached a minimum depth of 12 inches. The surface was scraped, and ice fields were marked. Successive plows (later power saws) cut gigantic grids of ice into 22 x 32 inch blocks.  Rafts of ice were pried away and towed to shore.  Powered elevators lifted the blocks to the storage houses.  There, men slid the blocks into position.

In the territory from Peterborough to Kitchener and from Orillia to Niagara Falls, most of the ice supply came from Bell Ewart. Toronto and many other large Canadian and American cities depended upon hundreds of carloads of the pure, natural ice. While some ice went directly to city markets by rail, the bulk of the harvest was packed into the massive storage houses. When the ice houses were full, the community erupted in a spontaneous celebration.  Over the next year, boxcars of ice, loaded as many as eight at a time, were shipped out of Lefroy.   Typically, a full train load was despatched every night.

Retail concerns were not the only ice harvesters, either. Beginning in 1920, Canadian National Railways took an annual harvest at Allandale to supply ice storage facilities locally and at Hornepayne, Capreol, Parry Sound, South River, Gravenhurst, Stratford, Palmerston, London, Fort Erie, Belleville and Kingston. The Allandale ice house was a large one, and in addition to its local needs, periodically shipped ice to the other facilities over the course of the year.  During the 1920s, the CNR harvested between 40,000 and 50,000 tons of ice annually at Allandale. For direct shipment without prior storage, a 360-foot platform allowed nine boxcars to be loaded simultaneously. As soon as the cars were loaded, the yard engine pulled them away and positioned another nine empties. By 1936, the ice harvest at Allandale was down to 7,500 tons per year.

While the railway made use of natural ice until the end of steam operations, Progress caught up to the Bell Ewart ice industry by 1929. The advent of artificial icemaking--not refrigerators--killed the ice harvest. Artificial plants in large cities could manufacture ice on demand, and coincident with the start of the Great Depression, the large scale ice harvest at Bell Ewart was over, the ice houses either burned down or were torn down, and the railway spur was removed.

Reluctant to leave the retail business they knew so well, four ice men went into business for themselves to supply the local market in the vicinity of Lefroy after the closing of the large ice companies. Territory was divided among them, and each man provided his own storage facilities. One of the four, George Baxter, converted his barn to an ice house by doubling the walls, and filling the gap with sawdust.  Ice was harvested in the old manner, on a smaller scale.

Elmer and Ken Baxter, sons of George, established themselves in business as Baxter Brothers Ice after the Second World War, and gradually took over all the local area. By buying up smaller contracts, they extended the territory to cover Allandale, Barrie and Camp Borden. About 1950, they constructed a large ice house on the site of the former Lake Simcoe and Belle Ewart facilities. Largest of the latter-day structures, it was nonetheless a simple affair, constructed of poles with plank sides, and no roof.

Reg Winchester worked for Baxter Brothers Ice from 1949 until September 1953, loading and delivering ice six days a week on two routes (home delivery of ice anywhere was required thrice-weekly). Arising at 4 a.m., he began loading his and the two other delivery trucks at 5 or 5:30 in the morning. For ice delivery, Baxter Brothers boasted a 1947 3-ton Mercury, a 1949 2-ton Mercury, and a 1935 1-1/2 ton Ford. The flat beds had plywood sides of about four feet high, with a tarpaulin laid on top of the load. Ice blocks three feet long were stood on end in the truck, and hosed down after loading to remove sawdust. Calls began at 8 a.m. On alternating days, his two routes consisted of Barrie, with more than 300 deliveries, and Allandale, with just under 300 calls. Working through lunch, a short day was over at 8 p.m., and a long one at 10 or 11 p.m.

Each day's work required two loadings. A reversible square white card with red lettering was displayed in the householder's window, showing either "25 lbs" or (more commonly) "50 lbs" for the ice man. Small blocks were split off and measured by sight. Tongs or a canvas shoulder bag (many times both at once for apartments) were employed to carry the ice block inside to the customer's ice box. A pike pole was carried on the truck for pulling large blocks.

In postwar Barrie and Allandale, the only company offering ice besides Baxter Brothers was Barrie Fuel & Supply, which otherwise handled coal. Until the thin 12-inch harvest of 1949, this firm was harvesting ice from Kempenfeldt Bay at Barrie. Thereafter, Barrie Fuel & Supply created their own artificial ice, but customers were not happy with the yellow residue it left, so in 1952 Baxter Brothers had a brief resurgence when their competitor left the retail ice business. By 1953, however, the customers were dropping steadily. By September 1954, local residents were petitioning to have the eyesore ice house removed from the Bell Ewart lakefront, and it soon disappeared. The second and last era of the retail ice industry on Lake Simcoe was over.

You've heard me mention Barrie and Allandale a lot in this piece. If this has aroused your interest, then I have a couple of books which will provide you with countless hours of escape and enjoyment. Start with Steam at Allandale, then follow it up with companion Steam Scenes of Allandale.

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