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Summertime: When the Iceman Came

by Virginia Campbell Downs

On sweltering summer days in the 1930s, children growing up in Lyndon squealed with delight at the arrival of the Handy ice truck. Everything came to a halt—hide-and-seek chases; hopscotch, neighborhood carnivals—while we tore out into the street to beg for chips of ice.

Ned Handy was not much more than a youngster himself when his father first handed him the ice tongs in 1934 for a summer job lugging ice cakes to homes in Lyndonville, Lyndon Center and Lyndon Corner. It was the year he would enter Lyndon Institute as a freshman, says the retired businessman, now a St. Johnsbury resident. “We went up and down every street and if a lady had put her ICE card in her front window, we stopped.” The ice cakes he carried weighed anywhere from 25 to 40 pounds. He would run up and downstairs with his icy burden, depositing the cakes in household ice boxes. It was a good conditioning job for a boy who was to become a star athlete at Lyndon Institute.
Ned laughs heartily recalling the lineup of children as the truck stopped. He would jump out, lifting up the thick, heavy canvas that covered the load of ice. “They’d yell, ‘Gimme a piece of ice!’” With a pick he’d hack off chips and hand them around, Licking that sliver of ice on a sizzling hot day was a treat comparing favorably to a glass of mother’s homemade root beer.
The ice business was critical in the years before every home had an electric refrigerator. When Ned’s father bought the Lyndonville Ice Company from Allen Hunter in 1931, the local creamery with its 411 farmer patrons became a big customer. “Every day the creamery handled three million pounds of milk,” Ned explains. “They used 15 to 20 tons of ice a day to cool and properly process the milk to ship to Boston.” The Handys also delivered ice to approximately 120 farms in the area. “They’d have to have ice to cool the milk to keep the bacteria count down.”
How the Handy family got into the ice business reflects the story of many immigrants early in this century who came nearly penniless to this country with golden hopes. The large extended Handy family from northern Lebanon sent its first contingent to America in 1907. Gabriel and Peter, cousins, and their young wives, made their way from Ellis Island to Newport. There the cousins became back peddlers, carrying suitcases in both hands and one on their backs, selling food items to families in the country¬side. By 1913 they had pooled enough resources to buy the Newport Ice Company. In 1920, when travel was allowed after World War I, Gabriel sent for his younger brother, William, to join them with his wife and children, Charlie, Mary and Ned, then three years old.
Ned vaguely remembers the early years when his father and uncles delivered their ice in a horse-drawn wagon and he went along for the ride. In 1924, his Uncle Gabriel bought the St. Johnsbury Ice Company and Ned’s father became half owner of the Newport business. Years later various Handy relatives emigrating from Lebanon owned ice companies in 10 Vermont towns.
By the time Ned’s family moved to Lyndonville seven years later, he had an intimate acquaintance with the art of ice-cutting. In Newport, his family had moved into Uncle Gabriel’s tenement, which was connected to the ice house next to the pond that provided their frozen livelihood. There he watched and later joined the rigorous task of cutting, moving and storing ice.
Ice harvest time lasted from January into March. “It was good work; I loved it,” he claims. “You had all you could eat and never gained weight and you were outdoors all the time. It was nothing to be out there in 15 to 18 below zero weather. But you didn’t mind the cold. You were moving around all the time,”
His brother Charlie, now deceased, was 10 years older than Ned. A burly man who could carry 450-pound blocks of ice on his back, he ran the power-driven saw that marked the frozen pond for harvesting. Ned and the other men manipulated hand saws and breaking bars, and fin¬ished the cutting operation. They carved channels to float the ice cakes up to a chute next to the ice house. There an endless chain powered by a truck pulled the blocks into the building for storage.
In addition to the pond next to their ice house on Route 5 just north of Lyndonville, the Handys rented the pond and ice house on the Vail estate for $100 a year.
Like the farm boys he knew, Ned had to get up at five in the morning for chores, making deliveries before school. During harvest time he missed many school days.
When World War II began, his brother Charlie was deferred permanently from military service, since ice was considered essential to the war effort. Ned was sent home by government order for the same reason after a year of military service.
March 1952 was the final ice harvest for the Handys and probably the last one nationwide from what Ned has been told. The “frigidaire” had caught on in local homes. The market shrank that year when Lyndon farmers and the creamery switched to mechanized refrigeration and thus ended a demanding, but satisfying way of life. Summer¬time children no longer watched for the friendly ice delivery man.

This article first appeared in Virginia Campbell Down’s book, Mansion & Meadows, a book published in 1991 by the Lyndon Historical Society to celebrate the bicentennial of the community of Lyndon.

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