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Cubin’ On Thin Ice

The ice harvesters of Mohawk Lake and how we got the Brown in Browntown.

 

Tim Ford, January 06, 2023 // Brantford, OntarioWorkers harvesting ice on Mohawk Lake. Stock photo.

  

It was 11:59pm on Dec. 31, 1919. Brantfordians all around the city were tangled in each other’s arms, clinking glasses, and counting down from ten in unison. As the champagne corks popped and the fireworks burst, there was a feeling around town of vitality and anticipation for the new year and new decade. Post-WWI had proven to be prosperous for most of Brantford and it was amalgamating into peacetime smoothly by leaning on its manufacturing heritage. The Massey-Harris and Cockshutt foundries pivoted from not just manufacturing farm equipment but also products needed for the rebuilding of Europe, like car and airplane parts.

There was an increase of Brantford residents when the soldiers came home from war.  More businesses began to set up shop to meet the demand of a blooming and bustling city. As the community celebrations unanimously roared 10! 9! 8! into the 1920’s, Brantford was amid a local industrial revolution. Factories, plants, and stores started to pop up at a staggering rate. S.C. Johnson, Holstein Friesen Co., Buck Stove Works, and other large foundries began to establish themselves in town, bringing hundreds of jobs to the community. Railroad and canal work was plentiful, and people from all over migrated to our city, determined to find success. Inevitably, Brantford couldn’t keep up with its growth. Housing and employment shortages were felt throughout the whole city and a once negligible unemployment rate would start to climb as each year passed. By the end of 1924, work was chosen out of desperation not determination for many Brantfordians.

 

Young workers cutting through ice on Mohawk Lake. Stock Photo.

 

Unemployment rates were higher than ever, so any odd job or seasonal work was coveted, no matter how menial or labourious. When word came that help was needed to harvest ice at Lovejoy’s self-proclaimed Pond (now Mohawk Lake), volunteers promptly lined up on the connecting banks of the Brantford Canal, thankful for the few weeks of work. Just after the first freeze of the year, anyone willing to endure the crisp sting of winter would carefully climb on top of the newly frozen pond, looking for cracks and listening for creaks at every step. After drilling a hole in the ice to confirm its depth, dozens of harvesters would hurry on top and begin slicing away. While skaters and skiers on the other side of the pond took advantage of their winter leisure time, the labourers would hand cut 30 cm cubes with an ice saw, one by one. They would then plop the cubes into the canal and let them bob down to Murray Street, where more workers would load them onto a horse and sleigh. From there, the ice would be stored in one of many ice shacks around town or it would be personally delivered to customers immediately. Local butchers, market vendors, well-to-do Dufferin homes, and hotels were all on the daily route, each eternally needing more. The ice deliverers were a bit like modern-day pizza delivery drivers, with time always being a key factor. Racing against the thawing ice, carriages zipped down the Brantford roads all day with the melting merchandise dripping behind them, leaving puddles and lost profits at every stop.

It was thought that only 10% of the harvested ice made it to the customer, the remaining 90% melted en route. After the workers on the pond made their cube quota and all the deliveries were sent out for the day, they would line up on the shore of the canal with their shivering, frostbitten hands out. The managers would walk down the line, handing each person the $1.25 wage, always given nightly.

 

Image of the Brantford Refrigerator Company located off of Sydenham Street in Brantford, Ontario. Stock Photo.

 

Those willing to push through the chill would walk down Mohawk Street every morning at dawn, slide onto the pond and cube until the sun would drop, taking whatever heat it was lending with it. In 1926, The Arctic Arena, a grand artificial skating rink built at the bottom of West Street hill was opened. It was said to be the biggest in the province and sat 3,500 people. Naturally, the arena had to have a limitless supply of ice to keep the skaters skating, so the need for harvesters ballooned, giving a bit of relief to the increasing amount of out-of-work folks around town. Every winter throughout the 1920’s, the ice harvest was a much-anticipated season that many depended on to make it through the holiday months. However, the dependability of that work started to wane as the decade was concluding. The advent of the refrigerator began to reflect on the number of labourers chosen, though only a lucky few could afford such a luxurious appliance at the time. As people counted down into another decade, an ominous revelation about the pond and canal’s water would be discovered. This discovery would bring the inevitable end to the ice harvest and absolute degradation of what we now know as Mohawk Lake. On the same canal where they processed the cubes stood factories and foundries lining its banks. This was the hub of the local industrial boom that Brantford saw a decade earlier and the two operations were unwillingly forced to share the same waterways. After residents started to complain of a funny aftertaste and a brown hue to the ice, it was found that years of sooty smoke and rusty residue from the factories had seeped into the water.

The ice was proven to be contaminated and no longer safe for consumption. It was now only considered usable for the refrigeration of beer at Brixel’s Brewery and to keep fish and meats cool at the market (gross). Lack of demand, brown ice cubes, and the devastation the city felt when the Great Depression struck, ended the tradition of the ice harvest. The factories now solely ruled the waters, and they were primarily used by barges that bloatedly chugalugged through Eagle Place from the Grand River. By the late 1980’s misfortune struck, and Brantford’s industrial boom flickered out. The same fate as the ice harvest would be had by almost all the businesses along the canal. One by one, they would each close or relocate, leading to mass layoffs and unemployment. This was a distress felt everywhere in our city. The effect of so many people not earning an income rippled over to other businesses and local commerce suffered a long period of recession. The 50 acres of land along the canal that used to be the centre of Brantford’s labour life-force was left abandoned for decades, causing environmental and reputational impacts still felt in the city today.

For years, on the Greenwich & Mohawk “brownfields” as they are now mockingly called, laid hollowed-out buildings like rusty tombstones, littered across the exact spot where Joseph Brant chose to begin this town. A location he chose for its beauty and agricultural potential. The pond-turned-lake that brought so much prosperity and employment, as well as joy and activity, is now barely used throughout winter except by a few brave skaters or for slippery dog walks at Mohawk Park. Most of the canal has been blotted off the map and paved over, although parts of it still run deep underneath the city. Mohawk Lake’s water continues to be deemed unhealthy to consume and unsafe to swim in or eat any fish from. Numerous studies and rehabilitation surveys over many years have been assessed on how to clean the lake, but little has been implemented.

 

Mohawk Lake as seen from Mohawk Park in Brantford, Ontario. Stock Photo.

 

Plans for restoration are being discussed by the city. In June of 2022, the City of Brantford released its ambitious (and quite lovely, actually) proposal to restore the canal and lake region of Eagle Place. Public parks, pathways, an events space, and a museum district have all been proposed. This could be a positive step forward, if the environmental trauma to the land and water is finally rehabilitated. Brantford has tried to wipe the brown from the surface of the fields, and removed most of the factory rubble, leaving a 50-acre scar on the historically important Brant Valley, but the significance of what has seeped beneath the surface of the land and water for over a century is toxic and it needs healing. The ice harvesters and community members of Brantford in the 1930’s experienced the environmental affects that industry had on the once vibrant habitat of Eagle Place. They could literally taste it. In the end, it’s been almost a century and if you were to make cubes from Mohawk Lake today, they would still be brown.

 

For further insight on the origins of the Mohawk Lake area, please refer to Jim Windle’s 2018 article for the Two Row Times on John Lovejoy.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.

 

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