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My eighth grade teacher, Mr. Tibbets, had been a merchant marine who retired from the sea and became a teacher. I’m not sure he ever did teacher stuff like lessons plans but I still consider him the best grade-school teacher I had. One day he started telling us about Maine’s ice industry and the person, according to Mr. Tibbets, who got it going.
Mr. Tibbets liked the expression ‘Yankee Ingenuity.” He made it clear to us that the expression, as he used it, had nothing to do with that disliked baseball team with a similar name. It had to do with the ability of New Englanders to make do with what’s available – with what’s at hand. As an example he told us about Captain Bradstreet. A version of his story went something like this:
In the late winter of 1824 Capt. William Bradstreet found himself still icebound on the upper-Kennebec somewhere near Pittston. His brig Orion had not made him a penny all winter and he was more than a little annoyed by the whole situation.
As spring thaw began and the ice started to break up, Capt. Bradstreet was ready to head south. Added to the long list of things that were aggravating him was the fact that his first loading port was Baltimore, so he would be sailing over 600 miles with no cargo.
Today, some chirpy individual might quote to Captain Bradstreet that annoying expression: ”When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” And Captain Bradstreet Probably would have thrown the irritating person over the side – wearing a regulation lifejacket, of course.
But at some point in his journey down the Kennebec Captain Bradstreet came up with a brilliant idea for making lemonade (just kidding) His idea was to fill his hold with some of the huge chunks of ice that surrounded his vessel and blocked his passage.
Once filled – with cargo that had cost him nothing – Captain Bradstreet ailed on to Baltimore. We’re told that this first commercial shipment of ice was sold in Baltimore by the captain for $700. And those, of course, were 1820s dollars, which we must always assume were a whole lot different from our present-day dollars.
Just imagine what ship owners all along the Kennebec were thinking once they heard what clever Captain Bradstreet was able to get for his shipload of free ice.
ICE – the stuff that had been clogging up shipping lanes and causing all kinds of mischief on the river for years – was apparently valuable further south. All you had to do was cut it, load it and haul it to a place like Baltimore – where summers were long and hot and food spoiled easily.
They say the next winter, the brig Criterion sailed out of Bath bound for Havana, Cuba with 160 tons of crystal-clear Kennebec ice in her hold.
Maine’s commercial ice business had begun.
As the industry grew, the shipowners began using another seemingly endless commodity – sawdust – to pack around their ice as insulation. Pretty ingenious, huh?

John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at mainestoryteller@yahoo.com or 899-1868.
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