Ice is in the news. Connecticut’s rivers are being clogged by ice jams and the U.S. Coast Guard is sending out ice cutters to take care of the mess. With all the hubbub about ice right now, I can’t help but think that 2018 would be a boon year for the ice harvesting industry, were it to still exist.
But alas, the ice harvesting industry has long gone by the wayside. Refrigeration pretty much took care of that in the 1930s. Still, you might encounter an oldtimer or two who remembers their grandmother using the old icebox. So where exactly did that ice come from?
If you lived in West Hartford at the turn of the 20th century, you didn’t have to go far. Edwin Arnold founded the Trout Brook Ice & Feed Co. on Farmington Ave. in West Hartford in 1879. A complex of company buildings were situated on the banks of Trout Brook. When the brook froze over, the ice was sawed in to blocks, stored in an ice house using an early conveyor belt, and packed in sawdust to keep cold. The company employed huge red wagons to carry the blocks of ice to homes in the area. Hundreds of workers purportedly came by trolley from Hartford to report for work during the ice harvesting season.
But Trout Brook Ice & Feed didn’t just service the Greater Hartford area. With an influx of immigrants to metropolitan area, the need for ice grew. At the same time, increases in technology meant more factories setting up shop along the rivers. Many sources of natural ice in metropolitan areas became contaminated from industrial pollution or sewer runoff. And so, ice from a pristine rural community like West Hartford, Connecticut became desirable. At its peak, Trout Brook Ice & Feed would ship up to 50 carloads per day by railroad to New York City.
Business was good for Trout Brook Ice & Feed. So much so that in 1912, Edwin’s son Fred Arnold purchased land along what used to be the Middle Road to Farmington to build another ice pond to keep up with demands. In addition to dredging for the new pond, the company built ice barns for storage and laid trolley racks to carry the ice to Farmington Ave. for shipment throughout the region.
Now, as increases in technology allowed for new refrigeration methods in the early 20th century, there was a chance that the ice industry would die out. However, when the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American ice trade rebounded. The nation’s existing refrigeration capabilities were challenged by increased shipments of chilled food to Europe during the war. Factories upped their production of munitions, which used up ammonia and coal that might otherwise be used for refrigeration plants. In short, the ice industry was called upon to relieve the refrigeration burden and maintain adequate supplies.
Unfortunately for the ice business, the years following WWI resulted in the industry’s collapse. The introduction of inexpensive electric motors resulted in the modern refrigerator replacing grandma’s ice box. In 1927, Arnold sold Trout Brook Ice & Feed Co. to the Southern New England Ice Co. That company dissolved nine years later. And it wasn’t the only ice company to do so.
In the 1930s, natural ice harvests declined dramatically and ice warehouses were abandoned or converted for other uses.
In 1936, Wallace B. Goodwin (of the Goodwin Pottery family), purchased land west of Ridgewood Road with the dream of creating a development that would offer “seclusion” but not “isolation.” He had trouble finding funders for his project because no one believed that a neighborhood out in the woods would be a desirable location. Eventually, Goodwin was able to purchase land between Wood Pond and Tunxis Roads, which included the land around Wood Pond and Woodridge Lake. The first house was built in 1937 for Charles Derrick, the Hartford Electric Light Co. CEO, designed by Norris Prentice and built by Charles Robinson. Guess what? The development was a hit and by 1941, 44 houses had been sold.
A newspaper article from the mid-1940s describes the neighborhood:
“Few Hartfordites are aware that there is a winter-summer resort just a stone’s throw from West Hartford Center – Woodridge Lake, just back of Ridgewood Road, formerly the old Arnold ice pond. Now this mile and a half long lake is a sight on Sundays – you see skaters, ice boats, toboggan slides, and 19 cabins dotting the edge of the water with smoke curling up from the fireplaces.”
The homes were originally intended as summer homes for the well-to-do of Hartford. In the past 20 years, an increasing number of residents have vastly expanded and modernized the homes for year-round use. Some residents built entirely new homes and kept the original, smaller cottage on the property. It is said that the foundations of the Trout Brook Ice & Feed ice barns can still be found on the properties.
Today, there is not a trace of the building complex that once occupied Farmington Avenue alongside Trout Brook. There is, however, a street that bears its name, though few would know that an ice company once stood at its intersection with Farmington Ave. The iceman may have come and gone before our time, but its history is still worth remembering.