Search for artifacts revives piece of Brookline history

Union Leader Correspondent
March 28. 2013 10:01PM

The Fresh Pond Ice Company once operated on Lake Potanipo in Brookline, and Joe King has made it his mission to retrieve historical artifacts from the bottom of the lake on behalf of the Brookline Historical Society. (Nancy Bean Foster)

BROOKLINE - With the bones of an old barn, a growing collection of historic artifacts salvaged from the depths of Lake Potanipo, and a whole lot of volunteers, the Brookline Historical Society is well on its way to creating a museum celebrating an industry from days gone by.

From 1890 to 1935, the now-sleepy town of Brookline was home to a sprawling industry known as the Fresh Pond Ice Company. According to Joe King, a member of the historical society, the ice company, headquartered in Somerville, Mass., and founded by a man named Jacob Hittenger, was happily taking its ice from Fresh Pond, an expansive lake that straddles the cities of Cambridge and Belmont in Massachusetts. But when Cambridge suddenly declared Fresh Pond a public reservoir in 1890, the ice company went north to Brookline.

On the shores of Lake Potanipo, the ice company built a sprawling complex - six stories high and 1,000 feet across at its widest point - and in the winter, men armed with saws, chisels, splitting forks and sledge hammers would carefully carve blocks of ice out of the lake and ship them by train to Boston.

In 1935, just as the age of ice men was giving way to modern refrigeration, the Fresh Pond Ice Company burned to the ground and for a while, faded from history. But eight years ago, Joe King, an avid scuba diver with a love of history, began exploring Lake Potanipo and bringing up artifacts from the ice company. After securing the necessary permits from the state, King's search for treasure began in earnest, and to date, he has amassed a growing collection of tools, hardware, and ephemera from the bottom of the lake. A padlock, massive saw blades, chisels and picks of various sizes, even a burned timber from the old building are among items King has salvaged.

"In those days, when something broke, they just threw it in the water," said King.

He has even found an ice chisel stamped with the name Jacob Hittenger, the company's founder.

"A lot of these things are priceless," said King, who has donated all of the items to the historical society.

The society's headquarters near the center of town is too small to accommodate King's finds, but another history buff, Scott Grzyb, has provided the bones of a new museum to house the Fresh Pond items.

Grzyb and his wife bought the frame of the old 38 foot x 40 foot barn, dating from 1870, and planned to use it for their business, but plans changed and for 10 years, the barn sat, disassembled, on the Grzyb's property in New York.

"I was looking for someone to buy it because I wanted a chance to see it raised," said Grzyb. But when he heard about the need for more space at the historical society, he donated the frame to the cause. A company was hired to erect the frame, and since then, residents have been donating trees from their properties to clad the barn. The trees have been milled by Bingham Lumber just down the road, and teams of volunteers have been pounding nails, fitting windows and doors, and making the barn whole again.

The total cost of the project is estimated to run around $120,000, and thus far the society has raised about half of what's needed, but piece by piece, progress is being made.

"It's really cool to have it right here in town where I can enjoy it," said Grzyb, who has had the pleasure to pound some of the nails on the siding himself.

"I'm very pleased with the whole thing," said historical society President David Fessenden. "I'm looking forward to its completion."

While fundraising for the barn project continues, and work progresses, King will continue his search for the history of Fresh Pond Ice Company beneath the ice that covers the lake still.

"I prefer working in the winter when the water's clear and the lake's quiet," King said.

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