The centuries-old tradition of ice fishing in the North Country has taken a real hit this winter, what with remarkably mild weather dominating the news. In an already terrible economy, the incomes of businesses and individuals alike have been deeply affected by the unusual conditions. There’s little that can be done, but perhaps a few interesting shanty stories from the past will provide a little distraction.
Wind has always been a factor in the lives of ice-fishermen, occasionally turning shanties into moving vehicles. A Plattsburgh fisherman, Frank Herwerth (caretaker at Clinton Community College) discovered just that in 1928 when a stiff March wind sent him sliding a couple of miles to near the middle of Lake Champlain.
The following year, in the narrows at Putnam, south of Ticonderoga, strong winds pushed a shanty across the lake, smashing it against the opposite shore. There were many similar cases over the years where even tethered structures broke free and slid for considerable distance on the open lake.
During the freakishly warm winters of the early 1930s, fishermen got an early start on the task of removing shanties dotting the few frozen sections of Lake Champlain. As conditions deteriorated at Bluff Point near Plattsburgh, one man in a group of five friends drove across the ice and successfully towed his shanty to shore.
Encouraged, his pals followed suit. One of them asked to borrow a car, and the owner lacked the wisdom to say no. Less than 100 feet from shore, the car began to settle in the soft surface. The passengers made a quick exit, and a short time later, another Dodge was on the lake’s bottom. (Not funny for the environment, of course, but a real head-shaker that someone would loan a car in that situation.)
One of the strangest sights ever to grace the surface of Lake Champlain (or any other lake, for that matter) occurred in late March 1911, during a terrific gale. Toppled shanties blew across the lake at speeds estimated between 20 and 30 mph, but that was only a prelude to the star attraction.
On Willsboro Point, a two-story home on the eastern shore was being moved about a half mile to a new location on the point. The easiest way was to deposit it on the ice and slide it, rather than cut a number of trees and attempt the move on land.
The sight of a two-story house sitting on the lake would have been enough, but the gale winds that arrived that day turned the situation into one of high drama. The house began to move to the southwest, slowly at first, but gained momentum, and was soon hurtling down the lake at an estimated speed of 40 mph.
Anomalies in the ice surface caused the house to spin and lurch at times as it sped along. At one point, it was headed towards a community of ice-fishing shanties. Finally, the house struck a prominent crack in the ice, which sent it twirling and slowed its progress. It eventually came to a halt in the vicinity of Split Rock Point, ten miles from its origin. When the wind died down, a team of horses hauled the house back to Willsboro Point.
Finally, here’s one of the many pranks ice fishermen engaged in, as reported in the Ticonderoga Sentinel seven decades ago: “Del Dumas thought his Champlain fishing shanty was afire when he awakened from a nap in the tiny shack the other day—but it developed that a jokester had plugged Mister Dumas’ stovepipe from the exterior, and you could have smoked a ham inside the hut.”
Photo: Headline from January 1928.
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.