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Ice cutting an old-fashioned trade

Eric Bolduc of Ramsey, at left, and Dirk Fultz of Bagley hoist an ice block out of Lake Itasca Saturday. (Sarah Smith/Enterprise)1 / 4
Cory Mauer of Grand Rapids tries his hand at the ice saw. (Sarah Smith/Enterprise)2 / 4
Dirk Fultz and Eric Bolduc haul an ice block to a waiting truck. (Sarah Smith/Enterprise)3 / 4
Ken Felt4 / 4

Seventy years ago Ken Felt lugged his 4-foot saw onto the ice of Lake Itasca and began cutting.

Like a stonemason, he made precise blocks of ice, 16-by-16 inches, 16-by-20 and other sizes if custom ordered.

The harvest continued through the winter until the ice went out on the lake.

"The 16-by-16s fit in ice boxes," Felt recalled, watching some Baby Boomers struggle with their ice tongs to heave a 16-inch cube of ice out onto the surface Saturday. In his day, Felt hoisted the blocks out of the water himself.

"We cut 300 cakes a day," he said, referring to the term of art used for the ice blocks. "We got paid 4 cents a cake for cutting them and pulling them out onto the ice. It was hard work."

Felt perched on his cane, watching members of the Lake Itasca Region Pioneer Farmers conduct an old-fashioned demonstration using ice augers, massive saws and tongs.

"I would not do this for a hobby," said club president Kerry Winkelmann of Fosston, flushed with the effort of plying his saw through thick ice hundreds of times.

Felt was an ice cutter for five years. He said the blocks were hauled to the park's Bear Paw Campground, stored in an icehouse there and used for the summer season.

But other icehouses dotted the region's lakes, he said. He still lives four miles from the park.

Ice cutters would carefully stack the blocks, pile snow in between them and cover them with sawdust for insulation where they would await summer use.

In the process, they'd embed tree branches in the newly cut ice on the lake as a warning to stay clear.

Winter anglers stored their daily catches on the ice blocks, recalled harvester Ed Conway of Bemidji. When they were ready to leave, they'd load up their frozen fish to take home.

Conway cut ice for his father's resort on Big Lake and for other resorts to use for the summer.

It was a big business, he said. Refrigeration didn't become available to the northland until the late 1950s, he said.

"It's a lot of work doing it all by hand," he said.

And he recalls the time when a whole day's harvest slipped beneath the water's surface one unseasonably warm day.

The invention of gas- powered saws speeded the harvest immeasurably, he said.

The 82-year-old showed up for the weekend demonstration, and even took his turn at wielding a saw. The effort to work the saw hadn't diminished with age, he observed.

Although sleds and sleighs were used to haul the ice in, more adventurous cutters used their trucks out on the lakes.

Harvesters slid the blocks up to the truck beds on makeshift wooden ramps.

Felt said the measure of a good block of ice was its crystal clarity. They'd sparkle when the sawdust was cleaned off them in the spring and summer. Shrinkage was kept to a minimum throughout the summer, he said, with the wet sawdust.

Three times a day, a bell would ring at the park, signaling the beginning of ice sales for the day. Resort owners would load up and remove the blocks for storage on their own lakes.

Both Felt and Conway, looking hale and hearty for their ages, smiled as younger generations struggled with a chore that was once as easy for the seniors as popping ice cubes out of a tray.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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