A Catskill Catalog: Feb. 10, 2010

Two days before Christmas in 1890, The New York Times reported on the ice harvest upstate. “All the icehouses in the Catskill Summer boarding region and of the Delaware County dairymen are filled with the clearest and best ice ever gathered.”
Ice was once a major upstate industry. Before refrigeration, New York City had a nearly insatiable appetite for upstate ice, cut from the frozen Hudson River when winter stopped river traffic and the shoreline brickyards were idle from the cold. Along the river’s edge, huge wooden icehouses, some 100-yards long, were filled with winter ice for summer sale.
Here in the Catskills, ice was cut and stored for more local use. As the Times’ coverage implies, a successful winter ice harvest, off-season, made the bountiful tables of Catskill hostelries possible come summer. And just as the dairyman needed to bring in hay in the summer for winter feed, he likewise needed to bring in ice in the winter for summer milk storage.
So, ice production and ice harvesting and ice storage and ice preservation into the hot months was big-time important. On farms, behind hotels, next to boarding houses, icehouses abounded in the mountains, storing precious cold against the promise of summer’s heat.
This past weekend, Hanford Mills Museum in East Meredith, celebrated an old-fashioned ice harvest. “The region’s coolest tradition continues,” boasted the program guide, although after a couple-year hiatus – this is the first winter in the last several cold enough to freeze the mill’s 10- acre pond to ice-harvesting thickness.
While we all need to take care around thin ice, ice is really pretty strong. At two inches thick, ice will hold a single person. Three inches are required to support a group. Ice seven-inches thick will hold a small car, perhaps, a pair of horses in 19th-century terms. Ten-inch thick ice is thick enough to hold an elephant, eight tons worth of elephant (which is a lot of elephant, especially in Delaware County).
The ice must have been a little thin in February 1913 when a team of horses belonging to Commodore Elbridge T. Gerry fell through the ice while working the ice harvest on Lake Delaware. Sadly, the horses drowned. Harvesting ice was hard and dangerous work.
The ice on Saturday was extremely safe, seeming about 10 to 15 inches thick, judging by the blocks kids were taking out of the frozen ponds. I say kids, because Hanford Mills made ice harvesting a hands-on educational experience for a gaggle of children the other day. While the pond was crowded with nine or 10 Carhart-bundled men, the actual harvesters all seemed about eight- to 12-years old, and excited to be outdoors working.
And, work ice harvesting is. First, one needs to clear the ice of snow. Snow is an insulator; so snow-covered ice will never harden, as it needs to. Then the ice-covered pond is marked out with a grid, a series of intersecting score lines on the ice surface, marking out block-size rectangles where cuts will be made.
This grid is made with an ice plow, a two-handled plow-like device on sled-runner blades sharpened to score the ice. A breaking bar or ice awl breaks the smooth surface of the pond. Then, men use an ice saw to cut into the ice along the score lines. A long-handled pike pole or ice hook is used to push and prod to shore those freshly cut blocks that float and bob away on the newly uncovered icy pond waters. Heavy tongs ease picking the ice blocks out of the water and onto a hand-drawn sled or horse-drawn sleigh for transport.
Transport is to the icehouse, a wooden structure, generally taller than it is wide, where the ice is stacked, block upon block, each block a substantial cube, a little bigger than a standard cinder block. Each layer of ice blocks is covered with sawdust, an insulator that helps hold the cold in the block and prevent melting.
The combination of the tightly packed ice and sawdust keeps the ice intact even as the weather warms, ready for use in summer.
Sawdust is an abundant by-product of a sawmill, so it made sense for a commercial mill, like Hanford Mills once was, to add ice to its product line.
Farmers could substitute straw for sawdust and get the same effect.
Ice was needed on the farm to make the storage and transport of milk possible during the warm months. Commercial dairy and creamery processing plants had their own large-scale ice operations.
Rural electricity and refrigeration did not fully arrive in the Catskills until after World War II, so ice harvesting continued in our region into the first half of the 20th Century. When I bought my first house, I found a strange looking harpoon-like tool that my new neighbors easily identified as an ice pike pole, used for maneuvering floating ice blocks to shore.
Seemed as exotic to me, then, as a harpoon would have. The Hanford Mills Museum made it all seem pretty central to the history of our mountains.