The ice man cometh (cameth) and his name was Frederic Tudor.
Fred was a man with a mission. He had a passionate commitment to a cause that would give anybody the chills. No member of the British monarchy (though he did hail from a notable Boston Brahmin family), Tudor was nevertheless known as the “Ice King.” He was the man that brought commercial ice to the people of this country and beyond.
Tudor was a man before his (pre-electricity, prerefrigerated) time. In the early 1800s, his plan to harvest ice for profit and ship it to the West Indies, the Caribbean, and other tropical countries was unheard of.
For this idea, he was largely ridiculed. To wit, even after a few early failures, he would answer his critics, sounding like an early-day Winston Churchill, “He who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow, despairs of success has never been, is not, and never will be a hero in war, love or business.”
Even the Boston Gazette questioned his plan. It reported that in 1806, the brig Favorite (owned by Tudor) left dock on Feb. 10, and their journalist observed that this was “No joke.” The newspaper further stated that “A vessel has cleared at the Custom House for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not prove a slippery speculation.” (They would not have the last laugh!)
Ice and all of its commercial possibilities for making Tudor a rich man was not a subject that he took lightly. He noted in his diary that “The frost covers the windows, the wheels creak, the boys run, winter rules, and $50,000 worth of Ice floats for me upon Fresh Pond.” Fresh Pond, one of his early sites for harvesting ice, was located in Cambridge.
Though many considered Tudor’s idea of harvesting ice and shipping it far and wide strange, if not downright crazy, he persevered. No shipping company would agree to carry his cargo, so he bought his own boat. His mantra became “I have so willed it.” His dedication to the cause of frozen water paid off and he eventually became a rich man, credited with establishing the industry of ice. At the peak of ice production in 1886, over 25 million tons was harvested in the U.S., with 600,000 tons harvested from the Boston area.
Frederic Tudor was born and raised in Massachusetts. Though he hailed from a wealthy family, he did not follow the path of hisfather. He was accepted to Harvard, but declined their invitation and had finished school for good by agethirteen.
His career in ice began at his family’s country home in Nahant. It was there that he harvested ice from the ponds and saw the potential for its use for food preservation, health andrefreshment. His kingdom of ponds included Walden Pond in Concord. During the winter of 1846-47 Henry David Thoreau observed Tudor’s workers cut ice and wrote incredulously in his journal, “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. . . . The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
Another Massachusetts native, Jacob Perkins, of Newburyport, takes credit for inventing the first machine that could manufacture ice. His machine, built in 1834, used vaporization to produce commercialice. Other inventions soon followed, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the natural ice harvesting industry declined.
Fred Tudor knew from the beginning that ice is nice, and would let no one, friend or foe, get in the way of his fantasy of frozen water transported far and wide. There were those that stood by and supported his efforts and those that just stood by and waited to see if he would succeed. Fred Tudor was patient and trusting for he knew that in the ice business, one only knows his friends from his enemies when the ice breaks.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.