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When most of us think of harvesting, we envision fields of grain, or orchards of fruit, or rows of vegetables. We think of summer. And autumn. What we usually don’t think of is “February.”

But to farmers in upstate New York during the 19th and 20th centuries, January and February were sometimes their most lucrative months of the entire year. That’s because New York City used more ice per capita than any other city in the world – 300,000 tons in fact.  (That’s a lot of Manhattans.) And much of that ice came from upstate farms and communities.

Each January & February, (weather permitting, of course,) every available frozen fresh water source became a revenue stream. (Pun very much intended.) Farm ponds. Lakes. You name it…people harvested the ice as it “grew.” During bad growing seasons, farmers could make as much or more from their ice harvest than they did from their autumn harvests. And if the seasons temperatures were particularly brutal, one could even reap two harvests from the same pond. Small consolation for a bad winter.

Harvested ice was stored year-round, covered in sawdust, lodged in specially built ice houses. Sometimes the ice was stored locally until sent by horse-drawn cart to the city. And sometimes it was sent by rail-car down to giant ice houses just outside NYC. It was used in the meat industry; for hotels and restaurants; and, before the advent of electric refrigeration, it was used in the iceboxes of private homes.

After a particularly cold winter and a hefty harvest stored ice was available year-round – especially if the summer was cool. But after an “open winter,” when temperatures didn’t drop far enough or long enough to create harvestable ice, there would be an “ice famine” the following summer.  This could cripple certain food industries, and impact the Amercian economy as negatively as a poor crop growing season.

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Recently we visited the Hanford Mills Museum in nearby East Meredith, NY.  During warm months, Hanford Mills operates as a historic water & steam powered lumber mill/museum. It’s well worth visiting to witness the antique mill equipment in action. But they also open up one day each February to harvest the ice from their pond. Visitors can help with the harvest, and the ice is stored on site until the following July 4th when it’s used to make homemade ice cream. (Pencilling in our calendars now.)

Check out our slideshow of the days events…

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  • By: Carol

    Thx for all the winter scenes. Too warm here (75 today) – will always miss NY! Be well -

  • By: Barbara

    What a great experience. Who knew? Now I do!
    Thank you for sharing this.

  • By: Linda Schnell- Leonardi

    What a wonderful day@! G’s store in South Philly has the last working Ridgeway Walk in Refrigerator in Philadelphia. The store used to be in the early 1900’s a Kosher Butcher shop. There is the “Hatch” at the top, where ice was put in to keep the ice box cold. After more than half a century, a compressor was added, and ice was not needed anymore. G, used it for the entire time he had his deli, 23 years, and now our tenants use the space for their Coffee shop. You must have had a blast….

  • By: Mary Collins

    Today was the ice harvest in Millers Mills NY. You should check it out next year. It’s not too far away. They haul the ice to the ice house on horse-drawn wagons, and you can ride along. It’s a great day!

  • By: Sandy S.

    I just saw “Frozen” last night (amazing in 3-D) and this reminded me of the opening scene.

  • By: Robin A

    This reminds me so much of the descriptions in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. Her husband Almanzo Wilder lived on a farm in New York State as a boy, and one of her books (“Farmer Boy”)was about that. I hope you do go back for the ice cream on the 4th! I would love to see the ice then.

  • By: Vicky Klukkert

    Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the ice harvest this year, but enjoyed everyone I did get to in the past. Still haven’t gotten to the July 4 festivities and I have lived in Delaware county most of my life. Maybe this year.

  • By: cindymaner

    Thank you for sharing this. It was very interesting. I always wondered how ice houses pre electric refrigeration kept the ice from thawing. Also interesting the ice industries impact on the economy.

  • By: Carolyn

    I see two layers of ice blocks in the ice house but it looks like a work in progress. How many layers will it take to make the ice last until July? I live where it doesn’t get that cold so I’m ‘enjoying’ the winter vicariously through you.

    • By: Josh Kilmer-Purcell

      The ice will be stacked to the ceiling of the ice house…and miraculously, it will only lose about 10% of its volume.

  • By: Karen McClellan

    That was very interesting. I didn’t ever think about an ice business and what that meant to the economy in days before refrigeration. Thanks for sharing.

  • By: jennifervizzo

    What a great story, and a reminder that we didn’t always have all these modern conveniences. I knew that ice was harvested back in the day…how cool that some of it came from Sharon Springs!

  • By: Liz

    Very cool! (Pun not initially intended) Thanks for going out in the cold for us and then sharing these great photos. It will be interesting to see how the ice looks in July.

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