In the days before artificial refrigeration, Torontonians harvested ice from local natural sources—including Grenadier Pond.
Originally published on January 8, 2011.
Prior to 1930, the lion’s share of Grenadier Pond was not actually part of High Park, but rather private property owned by the Ellis family, who were amongst the first to settle in what later became the Village of Swansea. On June 30, 1880, John Ellis sold a considerable part of his property, including much of Grenadier Pond, to Mrs. Wilma Chapman. Shortly thereafter, the Chapman family set up the Grenadier Ice Company and began selling frozen pond water to the citizens of Toronto and its suburbs for commercial and domestic use.
Before refrigeration became readily available, ice was a necessary commodity. Prior to home refrigerators, small blocks of ice were used in iceboxes to keep groceries cool, whereas larger quantities of ice were vital for industrial processes such as brewing, or for shipping various cargoes. In the days before air conditioning, ice was also a valuable commodity in the summer months. Toronto winters saw ice harvesting at several sites including Blockhouse Bay, Ashbridge’s Bay, and sections of the Don, usually undertaken by private companies who obtained permits to cut ice on city-owned water. The enterprising Chapmans soon added Grenadier Pond ice to the Toronto marketplace.
George Peckover, in his Recollections of Ellis Avenue and Swansea (Toronto: Swansea Historical Society, 1998), states that George Chapman started cutting ice on Grenadier Pond as early as 1881; the city directories first show a listing for the Grenadier Ice Company in 1883, with a downtown office on Wellington Street.
While ice cutting may sound like a quaint concept, it was actually quite a complex industry by the time the Chapmans entered the business. Ice harvesters frequently maintained their “crop” throughout early winter to generate the thickest ice possible, thereby maximizing their profit. According to the 1912 pamphlet How to Harvest Ice (published by the Gifford-Wood Company): “It is seldom that a field of ice freezes to the desired thickness without having one or more falls of snow upon it, and as a result the harvester is nearly always called upon to handle this snow in one way or another before marking out the field.” Accumulated snow prevents ice from freezing thickly, but in early winter the surface would not have supported the weight of a snowplough to clear it. As a result, a flooding technique known as “wetting down” was frequently employed to encourage ice formation. Wetting down often resulted in a few inches of lesser-quality ice on the surface, sometimes known as “sap ice,” which ice harvesters would remove with planers before moving the ice into storage.
Once the ice was deemed ready for harvest, sections were marked and then cut using horse-drawn ice ploughs. This produced long strips of ice which would be cut into smaller sections with handsaws, and extracted with hooks and other purpose-designed tools. Once the first strip of ice was removed, subsequent blocks of ice could be floated down the cleared channel on rafts to the icehouse, where planing would both remove surface detritus and make the blocks a uniform size, thereby facilitating efficient storage.
The first known icehouse used by the Chapmans was at the foot of Grenadier Pond, just west of what was then the Toronto city limit. The structure, like most icehouses at the time, was wood and likely insulated with sawdust. While effective at preserving ice through the summer, the building materials made icehouses notoriously prone to fire. There is no evidence that the first Grenadier Ice Company’s first icehouse burnt down, but it was eventually replaced with a second, more modern facility, likely in the mid-1920s.
As the weather warmed demand for ice would increase. According to oral histories collected by the Swansea Historical Society, the same horses which pulled the ploughs on Grenadier Pond would pull the ice delivery wagons in summer. In an 1883 edition of the Toronto Mail it was reported that Alfred Clayton, an employee of the Grenadier Ice Company, attempted to jump onto his ice delivery wagon near the corner of Church and Shuter Streets and fell under it, sustaining serious injuries “from which it is thought he will not recover.” As with many trades in the nineteenth century, the ice business was not always a safe one.
While ice from Grenadier Pond evidently sold well, the ice with the best reputation in Toronto was that of Lake Simcoe. James Fairhead set up the Spring Water Ice Company in 1870 (it became the Lake Simcoe Ice Company a few decades later), and Alfred Chapman, one of the Grenadier Ice Company Chapmans, set up an ice-cutting operation on the lake in 1891. Chapman’s site on Lake Simcoe was in the community of Bell Ewart, and he called this new company “Belle Ewart,” adding the extra ‘E.’ Well into the 20th century, both the Grenadier Ice and Belle Ewart Ice companies co-existed in Toronto, both being owned by Chapmans, Ltd.
In January of 1893, the supposed greater purity of Lake Simcoe ice caused great problems for Toronto’s ice dealers. The city’s medical health officer, a Dr. Allen, wanted all Toronto ice to come from Lake Simcoe, but many companies preferred to cut from Toronto sources without permits, finding it more economical to pay the fines than purchase Lake Simcoe–cut ice. Wilma Chapman and the Grenadier Ice Company announced they were demanding thirty thousand dollars from Toronto, because, according to the Globe, “health regulations permit ice to be cut from [Grenadier] Pond for cooling purposes only, thus greatly decreasing its value.” The city’s position evidently changed, as the Grenadier Ice Company continued to advertise their ice for domestic use throughout subsequent years.
Later in 1893, Toronto Mayor R.J. Fleming announced that he had reached an agreement with Wilma Chapman to purchase a sizeable piece of her property, including Grenadier Pond, for the sum of thirty five thousand dollars. The deal included additional park space to the west, which would have extended the park to the cliff west of the pond. Problems involving a right-of-way ended up voiding the deal, and the Chapman estate retained control of their portion of Grenadier Pond, and what is now the western portion of High Park, for nearly forty more years.
As one would expect, ice harvesting declined in Toronto in the early 20th century, as artificial ice manufacturing became more economically viable and as the modern refrigerator reduced the need for blocks of ice in the home. Source material suggests that ice cutting ceased on Grenadier Pond around 1920, although it may have continued for several more years. Toronto’s first ice-making plant is believed to have been opened in 1915 by the Lake Simcoe Ice Company, but the change to manufactured ice was not instantaneous. Some customers evidently preferred natural ice, either as a matter of personal preference or for economic reasons. Concerns over bacteria rarely seemed to trouble the consumers, and the shift to manufactured ice seems to have been inspired more by lowering the cost of ice manufacturing production than by the risk of disease.
In 1930, Toronto acquired Grenadier Pond from the Chapman estate, purchasing it, according to the Globe, for $150,000. The Grenadier Ice Company and the Belle Ewart Ice Company, both part of Chapmans Ltd., remained at the eastern foot of Ellis Avenue, where they had a rail spur on the Canadian Pacific. The rail connection allowed the companies to move ice to communities well outside the Toronto area: Peckover writes that Grenadier shipped ice as far as Buffalo. (Buffalo lacked a breakwater for many years, preventing the formation of commercial-quality ice in its harbour.)
The Grenadier Ice Company disappears from the city directories in the early 1940s, likely consolidated into Belle Ewart, and Belle Ewart itself was forced to leave the Grenadier Pond site in the 1950s, when the road infrastructure was altered; the site of the icehouse is now occupied by a stretch of the Queensway. While another of Swansea’s early industrial enterprises, Stelco, has a commemorative sculpture at nearby Windermere Avenue and the Queensway, there is no visible reminder of the Grenadier Ice Company, save for the ice which forms on the pond each winter.
Additional material from the September 22, 1883; January 9, 1893; and February 8, 1894 editions of the Mail; the February 1, 1915 edition of the Toronto World; and the January 10, 1893; January 20, 1893; April 25, 1893; and December 13, 1930 editions of the Globe.