Listener Mac McComas shares a personal story about cutting and delivering ice in New Hampshire, with tools that have barely changed for a century.
BRIAN BALOGH: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED AYERS: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER ONUF: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, tools of the trade. We’re considering a few of the technologies that have had an impact on the way Americans work.
BRIAN BALOGH: So far, we’ve been focused on novelty, either completely new concepts, like the cubicle, or new takes on old ones, like the office chair. But some workers feel there’s no improving on the tools that they’ve been using for years. While we were putting together our show, we received a note from a listener who has experience with one of those old time tools.
PETER ONUF: His name is Mac McComas. And for seven summers and two winters, he worked on a camp on New Hampshire’s Squam Lake. His job– chopping up huge blocks of place that had been harvested from the lake. The tool of his trade? Three foot high tongs that he and his coworkers used to move that ice into ice boxes in each of the camp’s cottages.
MAC MCCOMAS: The ice blocks weigh anywhere from 120 to 140 pounds. As you can imagine, you can’t really get a good grip on a 100 pound-plus piece of ice. So there are these giant ice tongs that you slam into the sides of the ice and pull them around. And actually, after a couple summers of working this job with some friends of mine, we all decided to get a tattoo of the ice ponds on our arm to commemorate the experience of working in this place.
PETER ONUF: Very cool.
MAC MCCOMAS: So they have two icehouses on camp. And it was my job to wake up every morning, get some ice blocks out of the icehouse, and using a wheelbarrow, deliver them to cottages around the camp and cut them up and put them in the iceboxes.
ED AYERS: What’s the major skill that was involved? I can see that it’s physically demanding, but what did you take pride in learning how to do?
MAC MCCOMAS: So you get these massive ice blocks. And they’re about 12 inches thick by 16 inches by 19 inches. And you’d not only have to be strong enough to get them to the cottage, but then we you get there, the iceboxes are all different shapes and sizes, and they usually don’t need a full block.
So what you have to do is, using an ice pick, perfectly chop the block so it doesn’t splinter off into little pieces, but you cut a nice little short cube out and put in the icebox. And that takes a couple weeks to learn how to do. And two years to master.
ED AYERS: Did you ever think of using a hairdryer?
MAC MCCOMAS: [LAUGHS] Probably could have just put my hand on it in the summer and melted it down.
PETER ONUF: That ice can survive a long time. Jefferson used to keep it at Monticello.
MAC MCCOMAS: Yeah, they pack it in there in January and come September, when we’re pulling out the last ice blocks, they’re still 90 to 100 pounds. They don’t melt much.
ED AYERS: So that sounds kind of authentic, kind of artisanal, kind of satisfying. So was there something–
BRIAN BALOGH: Waking up at 5:00 in the morning?
ED AYERS: That it’s not this disembodied electricity coming in through a toxic freon through an electric motor, all that, but instead just ice, made nature’s way. Was it awesome?
MAC MCCOMAS: Yeah. I mean, it was definitely a labor of love, one of those jobs where you get to be outside all day and work with your hands and do something that you knew that really nobody else was doing or had any idea how to do.
PETER ONUF: So, Mac, when you look back on it, when you think about it, what would you say it means to you? What do you take away from all this, and what are you going to tell your poor grandchildren when they have to listen to you?
BRIAN BALOGH: And wonder that tattoo is.
PETER ONUF: There’s the tattoo, yes.
MAC MCCOMAS: I think it was just a great experience to use my youth to do something that was really unusual. And I think what I took away from it is that you don’t have to start your career right away. You can spend some years to have fun, and–
PETER ONUF: You can put it on ice.
MAC MCCOMAS: Yeah, right. Exactly.
PETER ONUF: Hey, Mac, thanks for sharing with us.
BRIAN BALOGH: Yeah, it’s been ice talking to you.
MAC MCCOMAS: Thanks, guys.
PETER ONUF: All right. Bye bye.