Silver Lake today bears little evidence of the ice houses which once lined its shores. There were 17 ice houses, divided into two groups, with a railroad track between them, connecting to the Boston and Maine tracks near the Silver Lake Railroad Station.
100 years ago, the only way to keep food cool was to purchase ice, which was delivered in wagons that roamed the streets of every city and most towns. Every family had an icebox into which fresh ice was placed daily. In every family one child had the chore of emptying the ice pan every day.
As a guess, the Union Ice Company started construction of the ice houses at Silver Lake in 1875. The Union Ice houses were located on what is now the town beach, but the company also owned the old Harnden farm. The farmhouse still stands today at the corner of Glen Road and Harnden Street. The magnificent barn, though, was torn down about three years ago.
One can sort of date the Union Ice Company by the deeds that trace back to the farm. The Harnden farm was sold in 1874 to a man named Pickering. He then sold the property to the Union Ice Company in 1875. Presumably the ice company bought the property to control the ditch that ran from Silver Lake and Lubbers Brook. That ditch had been in place since about 1704 or 1705 to supply water for a mill on Glen Road. Henry Harnden was the last man to run that mill, which was on Lubbers Brook near Glen Road.
Nearly every village or town in eastern Massachusetts or southern New Hampshire had one or more ice houses. Railroad freight cars were loaded daily, carrying the ice to Boston and its suburbs.
There were two or three full-time employees at the Union Ice Company. John T. Wilde was the superintendent. He lived in a large home on Lake Street, a magnificent home.
Horace Caswell came down from New Brunswick about 1875. He built the home at the corner of Glen Road and Main Street, and was in the ice business almost until the day he died. He also erected an ice cream parlor on Main Street, next to his house.
Wilde had an office on the second story of the ice house, overlooking Silver Lake and sort of between the two ice runways. Everything considered, it was a nice place to work. On the easterly side of the buildings was a carpenter shop, where George C. Hill did maintenance on the buildings. He lived on Church Street in the house that is between Central Street and Mill Brook. Among other things, he was the first Worshipful Master of the Friendship Lodge of Masons.
Ice houses were constructed of double walls of inch board, with the space between being filled with sawdust for insulation.
The boards in those walls would be broken by blocks of ice from time to time. It was Hill’s job to repair the damage.
Wilmington farmers and their hired hands would be employed during the winter, cutting ice and hauling it to the ice houses. There was a runway between the two groups of ice houses, and a steam-powered lift to carry the ice from the lake level to where it was to be stored.
Keeping that power lift running would be the work of George Hill.
A lot of the ice was cut near the Lake Street side of the lake. The water there is not deep there, and pickerel weeds and other plants would grow there in the summer.
In the fall, some farmers would be hired to cut the weeds growing in the water. It would not do to try to sell weed-laden ice to the families of Boston.
Sometime about 1900, the street railways came out to Silver Lake. One could get on a streetcar in Charlestown or Cambridge and ride out to Silver Lake.
On Grove Avenue, a man named MacFarlane built an ice cream parlor, overlooking the lake. He had a nice porch with marble-topped tables. There were bath houses near the lake, where people could change into bathing suits.
Above those bath houses was a huge sign, advertising a soft drink called Moxie. People may not have known where MacFarlane’s was, but everyone knew where the Moxie sign was.
West of MacFarlane’s place, a man named Charlie Wiggins built a two-story store. He later sold it to Ralph Howe. Ralph ran a grocery store and Charlie was a barber. Charlie had lost both legs in an accident and had an artificial right foot.
Charlie used to drive a Buick, and he did so expertly. He had a bar from the brake to the clutch. He could, with one motion, step on the brake, or step on both the brake and the clutch.
About 1907-08, a baseball team was started. Eddie Neilson, a cousin of the writer, was the pitcher, a spitball pitcher who never lost a game.
The first baseman was Ray Howe, son of Ralph. The shortstop was Harold Melzar. That team travelled all over eastern Massachusetts for two years and defeated all comers.
Between MacFarlane’s and Howe’s, another building was constructed, a long narrow place. Whether it was built for the Silver Lake Men’s Club or as a Silver Lake library is not known. First it was one, and then it was the other. Eventually it was divided into three apartments.
Beyond Ralph Howe’s store, a bakery was built by a man named Smith. He continued in business for about 25 years and can be remembered as a kind-mannered gentleman.
Some of the buildings between Grove Avenue and the lake stood until the 1970s, when the town took them by eminent domain and demolished them. There are post cards which show the buildings in their heyday.
About 100 feet beyond Smith’s bakery was a road to the left, going down to the Silver Lake Railroad Station. For that day and age, the station was quite a place. It no longer exists. Part of the road is still there, named Wilde Avenue, after John Wilde.
Every weekday morning, just after 8 a.m., about 65 people would cross the tracks and await the arrival of the 8:11. The train was known as the Nashua Express.
There were only two stops between Nashua and Boston, Lowell and Silver Lake. The train would cover the 17 miles to Boston in just 19 minutes. Get on the train at 8:11 and you could be in your office in Boston by 9 a.m.
On the corner of Wilde Avenue, opposite the Union Ice House, stood the Jackson Club, owned by some young men from Charlestown. It had quite a reputation, and there are some stories to tell.
One involves Caroline Neilson, the mother of the writer. She was walking down to the railroad station one day about 1915. As she passed the Jackson Club, an upstairs window was opened and a young woman was pushed out onto the roof without a stitch of clothing. Mrs. Neilson never again walked on that side of Grove Avenue.
A second incident took place about 1912. Herbert Barrows was chairman of the Board of Selectmen, and Walter Hill was chief of police.
They were notified that a riot was going on at the Jackson Club. Herb got into his buggy and got there as soon as he could.
Chief Hill was a gentleman. He would always avoid a fight.
Herb Barrows was a gentleman, too, but he never ducked a fight. He just stormed into the Jackson Club and grabbed the first man he came to by the coat collar. Herb dragged the young man to Silver Lake and threw him in the water.
“Oh, he’ll drown!” wailed the chief.
“Let the bastard drown!” roared Herb as he went back into the Jackson Club for another member. But there was nobody there. They had all dashed out the back door into the swamp.
Another story about the Jackson Club concerns the town’s new street lights. Someone in the club owned a Model T Ford, which was a handy vehicle to drive in those days. They would drive around in the Model T in the evening, and shoot street lights.
The rule of the game was that the car had to be going about 45 miles per hour when the trigger was pulled. The gun used was a .22 rifle. In a Model T, 45 miles an hour was about full speed.
If the shooter missed, the driver would stop and back up to, say, 100 yards on the other side of the light. He would start up again and be going full speed as the car passed beneath the street light.
The writer has no idea how the members kept score of their hits and misses. As a matter of fact, he has no idea of how the Reading Municipal Light Dept. kept track of the hits and misses, either.
The Jackson Club building later became a restaurant, Jack’s Lunch, and later served as the meeting hall of the Disabled American Veterans. It was torn down in the 1960s after a fire.
Sometime after World War I, the Union Ice House was no longer in service. Walter Hale had constructed an ice house off Main Street, near Glen Road. The Union ice company was no longer shipping ice, and gradually its ice houses fell to pieces.
The sawdust in the ice houses was an ideal fuel for fires. Every summer, there would be fires. The people at the lake used to complain about how long it took the fire department to respond to a fire. The lake was about two miles from the fire station.
So they “took over” a horse-drawn piece of apparatus and started their own Silver Lake Fire Department. Harry Miller was the chief, Claude Thompson was the treasurer, and Peter Neilson, the writer’s father and a brother to Pop, was the clerk. The fire wagon was kept in a shed on Christian “Pop” Neilson’s farm, and that gentleman provided the horse, too.
How many house fires the Silver Lake Fire Department responded to is not known. But every summer, during the hot month of August, the men of the Siler Lake Fire Department would go over to the site of the Union Ice House and man the pumps, putting out fires, which had started spontaneously in the sawdust. It was great fun.
The secret incentive of that fire department was to be found in the water tub of that wagon. Prohibition by this time was the law of the land.
Before the volunteers started from the shed at Pop Neilson’s, a keg of beer was put into the tub of the wagon. By the time they returned to Pop’s, that beer, immersed in the cold waters of Silver Lake, was just right for a refreshing drink.
(Capt. Larz Neilson [1911-2000] grew up at Silver Lake in Wilmington. In 1955, he founded the Town Crier. This story dates from the 1980s.)