by Barb somewhere between Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina as you read this
The fifth Maine Clambake Mystery, Iced Under, debuted this week. In it, I try to fill in some of the blanks in Julia’s mother’s family history.
Pieces of Jacqueline Snowden’s story have been told in each of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. From the previous books, we know she lost her mother young, that she inherited Morrow Island, and that her once-wealthy ancestors build Windsholme, the abandoned mansion on the island. What I’ve never told is how her family made their money and how they lost it.
I’ve known for a while that the Morrows made their money in the frozen-water trade. The idea that New Englanders, in the early part of the nineteenth century, shipped ice halfway around the world has long fascinated to me. In researching the story of the ice trade, I found not one, but two amazing stories.
Frederic Tudor was the originator of the ice trade. As early as 1805 he had the idea that ice cut from ponds in Massachusetts could be shipped to the West Indies for the enjoyment of the colonists there. Literally everyone he knew in Boston thought this was crazy. In the years that followed he experimented with different types of insulation (sawdust turned out to be best) and set about getting exclusive contracts to sell the ice in tropical cities. It took much time, the purchase of ships had to be financed, ice houses had to be built at his destinations. The War of 1812 set back the calendar. He went to debtors prison twice for debts accrued pursuing the venture. However, by 1826 Tudor was at last making a fortune, harvesting ice from Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and sending it to Cuba, Haiti, New Orleans, Savannah, and Calcutta. Henry David Thoreau awoke one morning to see sixty men and teams of horses cutting ice on Walden Pond. Though he hated the intrusion, Thoreau was taken with the idea that water he had bathed in would end up in India. The frozen water trade was a genius business because ships often came to Boston with coffee and other goods from around the world and left empty, with granite boulders used a ballast. New England had no cash crop and little in the way of natural resources. The ice was free, except for the labor, and it came every year.
Tudor’s family life was somehow even more colorful than his business. At fifty, he married for the first time, a woman thirty years his junior and went on to have six children. We know as much as we do about his business because all his diaries reside at the library at Harvard Business School. After he died at the age of eighty-one, his wife went through the diaries, editorializing. The theme of her complaints was that he was “relentless.” Tudor’s sister had an affair with Joseph Bonaparte, ex-King of Spain, when both lived in New Jersey (because, of course…). His niece was the mother of the Irish Nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell. One of his descendants was one of my favorite New England author/illustrators, Tasha Tudor.
I borrowed a good deal of Frederic Tudor’s history for Jacqueline’s ancestor Frederic Morrow. Two excellent books about Frederic Tudor are The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle, by Carl Seaburg and Stanley Patterson (Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport, 2003), and The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story, by Gavin Weightman (Hyperion, 2003).
The end of the ice trade is as interesting as the beginning and brings us another fascinating character, Charlie Morse of Bath, Maine. By the time Charlie got into the ice business in 1897, it was no longer necessary to ship ice to exotic places. Rural people and immigrants had poured into America’s cities and ice was need to preserve food and cool off from hard, physical work. New York City alone consumed four million pounds of ice a day.
Charlie Morse had rights to cut ice along the Kennebec River in Maine. He had the Tammany connections in New York City to shut out his competitors, leaving their ships unloaded in New York harbor. But he took it too far, jacking up the price so high one summer, the press declared it a war on the poor, and eventually Charlie went to prison. He was a rogue and a speculator, just like Frederic Tudor, and he, too, was called “The Ice King.” He also had a colorful and crazy personal life.
I appropriated some of Charlie’s deeds for Jacqueline’s ancestor William Morrow. If you want to learn more, I recommend Bath, Maine’s Charlie Morse: Ice King & Wall Street Scoundrel, by Philip H. Woods (The History Press, 2011).
The ice trade was eventually done in by modern refrigeration. The age of the Ice Kings had ended, and though great fortunes were made and lost, it had lasted less than one hundred years.
I love stuff like that–those moments in time that seem so important with empires built like they’ll last forever–and then, “poof” they are gone. The stories I wrote about Jacqueline’s ancestors are ultimately fiction, but they are rooted in history. Unfortunately, because it’s a small part of Iced Under, I could barely scratch the surface of this fascinating business and the larger-than-life characters behind it. I hope the book inspires some readers to learn more.