Interview with Mr. Jacques Paquette (also present, Jean-Louis Legault): Stéphane Tessier. Société d’histoire d’Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Cité historia Fonds (circa 2001).
In an interview recorded circa 2001, historian and cultural animator Stéphane Tessier (ST) talks with Mr. Jacques Paquette (JPa) about the various aspects of the sale of ice. Jean-Louis Legault, on the right of the screen, is sitting in on their conversation. They discuss cutting blocks of ice on the Des Prairies River in the winter, how these were stored in a building called a “glacière” (ice house), and how they were delivered to clients.
JPa [archive footage] My father started selling ice, I think in 1938-39. I was young…
ST What was his name? Eugène Gendron?
JPa My father? No, Herménégilde Paquette.
And so Herménégilde Paquette was a young man living on the island who used to work for Mr. Gendron. He married his eldest daughter and started selling ice for him. Eventually he started his own business.
Cutting ice was a big deal, because if you missed, you’d lose the block. You’d lose your profit. And ice sold for 10 cents in those days.
ST And how would you go about cutting it?
JPa With an ice axe, which looks a lot like a fireman’s axe. With a pick to flip the blocks. We would flip the blocks on old tires so they wouldn’t break. They’d bounce a bit, but they wouldn’t break.
Then we would make “notches.” Making notches meant we would systematically carve little grooves in the ice, one in front of the other. You’d have to make them so you could hear the ice. It was like porcelain, it would split in a perfect line, if you did it right.
If you didn’t, well there went your profit. You couldn’t sell a broken ice block. You sold those scraps at half-price. You’d lose your profit.
So it wasn’t easy to find good ice cutters.
When summer came you had to… You had workers spend the whole day in the ice house to “loosen” the ice. Because the blocks had all gotten stuck together during wintertime.
They were all in there, stacked and stuck together. There would always be a little condensation, a little thawing. Heat could still get in through the cracks. All you needed was a small draft and all the blocks would freeze into one big one. All the ice clumped together! You couldn’t just take out the one block.
You had to “loosen” it first.
ST “Loosening,” what was that?
JPa Loosening meant getting the block out without breaking it.
ST And how do you do that?
JPa Well that’s it, isn’t it? That’s why it’s called a craft. A guy … had to learn. And not everybody could.
Guys would spend the whole day in that ice house to “loosen” the ice, take it out, cut it in pieces, slide it down a “skid,” and load the carts. Because when it’s 50 feet up, you can’t get that block yourself. It had to go down a “slice.”
And it couldn’t come down fast like that. It had to wind around, and turn. It would come down and the guy would catch it. The guys at the top had to be careful not to go too fast.
I was a kid back then, and I would leave the house—because we lived nearby—, and I would see them work.