GLOUCESTER - In these days of refrigerators with cube dispensers in the doors, most people don't think a lot about ice, says Scott Memhard, president of Cape Pond Ice, as he warms to the cool subject.
When Cape Pond was founded in 1848 by a Gloucester blacksmith to provide ice "for vessels, hotels, restaurants, saloons, markets, and family use," ice was harvested from frozen ponds and packed in sawdust to last over the summer.
Indeed, the company didn't build its own refrigerated "pond" to make ice year-round until 1948. Based in a boxy ice house on the waterfront, Cape Pond Ice had quietly gone about its business - until the 2000 Warner Bros. film "The Perfect Storm" thrust it into the limelight. The movie was based on Sebastian Junger's book of the same name about the loss of the Gloucester swordfishing vessel Andrea Gail in the Halloween storm of 1991.
"As far as we know," Memhard says, "we were her last stop. She took on 20 tons of ice before heading out."
Tours begin in the office, where visitors find photos of the Andrea Gail and of actor John Hawkes, who portrayed a crew member and wore one of the company's logo T-shirts in the film. Memhard, who often gives the tours during the slow winter season, usually starts by showing a 10-minute documentary on the early history of the New England ice industry.
It all began in 1806, when "Ice King" Frederic Tudor shipped a boatload of ice from Fresh Pond in Cambridge to the eastern Caribbean island Martinique. The cargo wasn't an immediate hit since the islanders had never seen ice, but by 1856, Massachusetts was shipping 146,000 tons of the cold stuff around the world.
The short film contains vintage footage of men harvesting ice from ponds with saws, quite a contrast to Cape Pond's 50-by-100-foot steel and concrete "pond" visible through a window in the office. Rows of 40-gallon molds are used to produce 2-by-4-by-1-foot blocks that weigh 335 pounds each. Raised from the below-freezing chemical brine, they're extracted much as cubes are cracked from a refrigerator's ice tray, then slid onto elevators and stored on the third floor of the facility. Memhard says the pond can yield 900 blocks a day - about 150 tons. The tour proceeds outside to the ice house wharf, where fishing boats tie up and order the number of tons they need. "We're like a service station to the fleet," Memhard says. Blocks are fed into a crushing machine and blown into the hold through a 5-inch-diameter hose at about a ton per minute.
He leads the way into the ice house, which is kept a brisk 27-to-28 degrees. Hoarfrost coats the pipes and ceiling of the room-sized, non-self-defrosting freezer. Cape Pond selects the clearest blocks for ice-carvers at the region's hotels and the two Connecticut casinos. The company also provides the raw material for First Night ice sculptures.
The company's own sculptors craft custom carvings. Amid the stored blocks are a number of finished pieces - "our gallery," Memhard jokes, as he uncovers a graceful ice swan and a replica of Gloucester's signature "Man at the Wheel" waterfront sculpture. Carver Derek Henry, who has worked at Cape Pond Ice since 1993, is beginning to rough out a pair of kissing swans - popular for weddings and anniversary parties. Working with a chainsaw, then with gouges and chisels, it will take Henry about eight hours to execute.
The tour concludes where it starts: at the merchandise display. Somehow a 5-pound bag of cubes doesn't make quite as good a souvenir as the T-shirt immortalized in "The Perfect Storm." On one side it says "Cape Pond Ice" - on the other, "The Coolest Guys Around."
Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers from Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.