You know it’s freezing outside when the icehouse — kept at a constant 28 degrees — feels warm.
Inside the venerable ice-making plant, it’s so cold you can see your breath, and stalactites grow off the ceiling. But during the recent extended cold snap, Scott Memhard, president of Cape Pond Ice Company, retreated to the historic building on the Gloucester waterfront to keep warm.
With sub-zero weather, Memhard found his workplace unusually comfortable, even as he had to deal with flooding after the Jan. 4 storm. Tidal water wreaked havoc with the machinery, but after three decades in the ice business, Memhard kept a cool head. Ice is his life — bagged ice, block ice, dry ice, crushed ice, and sculpture ice.
The ice trade, so vital at the turn of the 20th century, has almost completely melted, and Memhard has struggled to keep his family business relevant. Investors have taken over the property, but he continues to run the downsized operation.
While many associate ice just with food and beverage refrigeration, the commercial use of ice is essential to other industries, including applications in health care, agriculture, and construction.
Just recently, a shipment of ice went out to keep lobster parts frozen for DNA sequencing. Another ice delivery was used for inside patients’ skull caps to prevent hair loss during chemotherapy. Ice is also essential to help cure cement, fast-chill turkey and chickens for processing, and to keep fish from spoiling. But Cape Pond Ice’s main source of revenue for years — servicing the fishermen to keep their catch cool on boats — has disappeared.
“In just two or three generations, technology has changed ice making,” says Memhard, who faces competition from major ice producers that have consolidated over the years. And getting into the ice business today is relatively easy for gas stations, convenient stores and small retailers – “all you need is an ice machine and some bags,” Memhard says.
Memhard, 62, who is known to don a Cape Pond Ice T-shirt (“Wicked Coolest Guys Around”) underneath his jacket in the freezer, spoke with the Globe about why making ice cubes can be so much work.
“It’s pretty bleak here in the winter months. Why would anyone want to bother the ice man in January and February?
“But we do provide ice blocks for the ice castles in Lincoln, N.H. — we ship them blocks of ice which they use to build the frozen tunnels, archways, and slides. Some ice blocks got damaged in transit, though, which shows you that ice is not that simple. Other than that, we’re just waiting for the phone to ring and doing maintenance on machinery. But come July and August, we do 80 percent of our ice sales and provide a basic vital service. That’s when I’m working seven days a week, 14 hours day.
“The ice business is all about material handling; ice is heavy and wet, and few outside the industry appreciate how much hard labor and careful backup is needed. But when properly insulated, ice can last a long time. One customer took 150 pounds of ice in his boat and it lasted all the way to Bermuda.
“Cape Pond Ice was founded in 1848 and we are the fifth family group to own the company. Like many small businesses, my father and I — who just passed away at age 87 — face the challenges of overwhelming bureaucracy, controlling costs, and needing to diversify to survive. Our biggest niche market is a surprise to many — our ice helped build the Seabrook nuclear power cooling tunnel and the footings for the new World Trade Center New York City. They had to come all the way to Gloucester to meet their ice needs. Ice is used to cool down the curing temperature of concrete. And during the Big Dig, as many as a dozen tractor trailers a day went back and forth, delivering ice for the construction.
“While ice sculptures might last only five hours at a party, we have some on display that have been preserved for two decades, including a humpback whale, angel fish, and Gloucester fisherman. But kids today don’t know where ice comes from. They’ll say, ‘Press a button and it comes from the refrigerator.’ Or show them an ice cube tray with metal lever, and they’re not sure what it is.
“I still remember the ice man delivering ice to my grandparents’ ice box, but not many still have that memory. But we’re committed to the ice business. I can’t imagine a world without ice.”Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.