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Cuttting and prying loose the blocks of ice. Photo: Sustainble Living Project
Cuttting and prying loose the blocks of ice. Photo: Sustainble Living Project

Old ways add up nicely for one subsistence family

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It's a scene that was common-place in the early 20th century, horses out on a frozen lake cutting through the ice with bladed plows.

Ice harvesting may not be part of your family's plans this year, but for one rural St. Lawrence County family it's the only way to keep food cool during the summer. Trevor Alford visited the Douglass family farm outside Canton and has our story.

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A team of Belgians hauls the harvest to the icehouse. Photo: Trevor Alford

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The Douglass family lives without electricity. That means no water boilers, no electric lights and no refrigerators. They go to town in their horse drawn carriage.  

But that doesn’t mean Richard, Anne and their four children are going without. Animal fat lamps line their common room walls. The home is neat and tidy, the only clutter being Lego sets scattered on the window sills. The whole place smells of fresh baked bread and wood smoke.

The Douglass’ rent to a young Amish family on the farm in exchange for part time help.

“Most people see the Amish at a distance and don’t really know how they really are, what their culture is really like.”

Richard Douglass says it has been a learning experience. Three young Amish men were helping with the ice cutting that day, Levi M. Miller along with his brother and his brother-in-law.

But the Amish weren’t the only help that the Douglass’ had with this chore.

A mob of helpers descended on the farm the day of the harvest. They used ice saws, clamps and hooks to cut the ice out of the lake by hand. Then the foot-thick ice blocks were loaded it up on large horse drawn wagons to be hauled more than a mile uphill to the ice house.

The ice house has more in common with a cave than a house. It’s dug into a large earthen mound next to the Douglass’ cozy farmhouse. Grass covers the outside while the inside is supported by wooden beams.

A bucket brigade shifted piles of sawdust inside for insulation.

“Ice can last from one winter to the next properly packed, so that’s what we’re shooting for.”

Chelle Lindhal the co-coordinator of the Sustainable Living Project helped bring in the extra manpower for the harvest.

“The Douglass family lives entirely off the grid. They have this homestead that is all human and horse power. They do have a windmill, that’s the water pumping, but other than that it’s all kind of mammal powered I guess.”

Their lifestyle means extensive planning. In the summer they must put away enough food to last throughout the winter. In the winter they have to bring in enough ice for the summer.

That takes a lot of ice. The group cut out about 400 square feet worth on this day.

Dr. Jon Rosales, a professor at St. Lawrence University, brought his students out to see a subsistence farm in action.

“We can just go to the grocery store if we need some food but here Rich has to think about six months ahead before he can get the food that he wants in any given month.”

The students watched as volunteers wrestled heavy ice blocks with large tongs and horses pulled the heavy load uphill back to the farm.

Taylor Smith, is an environmental studies major in his senior year. He said subsistence living-

“It would be a hard life, but it’s an alternative to fossil fuels.”

Douglass agrees that his lifestyle is hard.

“If you look at it from a dollars and cents stand point it doesn’t add up. But if you look at it on quality of life it’s hands down at least for us a winning situation. We really enjoy our life here.”

Douglass first lived without electricity as a child growing up in Maine. His family spent their summers at a camp deep in the woods living without alternating current for a few months each year.

On their first North Country farm the Douglass’ tried to generate their own electricity, but eventually they found themselves living without it.

“I don’t think it was a conscious choice.”

Douglass says sometimes the best method isn’t the newest or the most complex. Sometimes it’s better to be simple.

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