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.
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.)