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Ice Farming

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When I was in junior high school, and beginning to imagine what I would be when I grew up, I had a hard time deciding between Prince Valiant rescuing girls from the clutches of villains, the captain of a space patrol rescuing girls from Martian monsters, or ice farming.

I had pretty much decided on ice farming. Several times a summer, on hot afternoons, we boys would bike down to the icehouse by the river. It looked like a barn that was all hay mow. Inside was a mountain of ice blocks covered with sawdust to keep them frozen all summer. All summer while the other farmers were hard at work in their hot fields, the ice farmer sat in the cool doorway of his air-conditioned icehouse, waiting for customers.

An easy life, I thought. The ice man got all summer off, just like a boy, and only worked January and February. And the river ice was free for the taking, just cut it into blocks and haul it up to the icehouse.

Then one day, after I had gotten to know him, he told me how to farm ice, and it ruined everything. It was work, hard work. First, he said, you have to find a place in the river where the current is just right. Too slow, and you get cloudy "pond ice;" too fast and the ice is too thin. Only in a few places does the river give ice that is clear and blue, the way people wanted for their ice boxes.

And the river didn't just give the ice. All winter, the ice farmer has to keep snow off his ice so it froze deep enough; then the ice has to be marked in blocks, two feet by eight feet, cut almost through with an ice plow, and sawed the rest of the way. Then, you had to cut a channel from your farm to the elevator up to the icehouse and pull the blocks along. Keeping the channel open meant someone has to stay up all night—and all day, too—to keep the channel from freezing over. Finally, you have to haul each block up the elevator into the icehouse and cover it with sawdust you'd hauled in from a sawmill. Then, after you'd harvested several hundred blocks of ice, you can sit in your doorway on hot summer days and talk to inquisitive boys.

That's why I decided to become a teacher instead of an ice farmer. Same summers off and no heavy lifting.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.