Before the invention of electric refrigeration, how did food and perishables keep cold, especially during the warm summer months? The answer is ice. Large blocks of ice cut from a river or lake during the winter would keep food items cool all summer. But how did the ice move from there into the home?
That feat was the work of an expansive ice harvesting industry, which was active throughout much of the northeast coast of the country (as well as inland, in northern states) between the 1830s and 1920s, and which was dominated for several decades by production on the Hudson River and nearby lakes.
Although Staatsburg in Dutchess County is a quiet hamlet today, it was once a bustling hub of the ice harvesting industry. Ice was a very valuable natural resource, which required an impressive amount of infrastructure and investment to cut and transport to customers. The labor came from a small army of men and horses.
In the 19th century, as cities grew in size and population, the demand for ice to preserve food and cool people in warm weather grew tremendously, as urban populations did not have immediate access to frozen ponds and rivers. Hamlets and towns along the Hudson developed a robust trade to supply the demand downriver in New York City, and export ice to other, farther-flung locations.
Another significant consumer of ice was the brewing industry, which used ice in regulating the temperature of fermentation so that beer could be made year-round rather than in a limited number of months. As the meat-packing industry grew, it too consumed large quantities of harvested ice.
Some households, like the affluent Gilded Age owners of what today is the Staatsburgh State Historic Site, had the luxury of filling their ice house with ice from a body of water adjacent to their property, but others did not have the same resources and had to purchase ice.
This country estate and 79-room mansion of the very wealthy Mills family frequently hosted parties of houseguests for elegant weekends, and boasted all of the era’s cutting-edge technology and luxurious amenities available, including electricity, gravity-fed plumbing and ice-cooled culinary delicacies.
With a large staff of estate and farm workers, Staatsburgh had the labor needed to cut and store a year-round supply of ice from the Hudson for its own icehouse each winter. A period photograph of the estate buildings at the river’s edge suggests the location of the now missing icehouse: a peaked roof appears behind the double-roofed boathouse complex on the water, and to the right of the powerhouse, which generated electricity for the estate.
Producing and storing ice had been practiced since ancient times in Asia and other parts of the world, by controlling evaporation, but in America, the impetus for a fast-growing ice harvesting industry, drawing on naturally-produced ice in cold weather, is credited to the “Ice King of Boston,” a man named Frederick Tudorwho between 1805 and 1836, developed technical advances that made ice harvesting and storage profitable, creating a mass market for ice. Through tireless experimentation, Tudor reduced loss from ice melt in storage from 66 to 8 percent, and created markets for shipping his product in southern states and the Caribbean.
One of Tudor’s employees, Nathaniel Wyeth, patented the horse-drawn ice cutter which was the first tool to cut even-sided, regular blocks of ice. Before his invention, ice was hacked out in irregular chunks, which led to much loss from melt and inefficient shipping and storage. Wyeth’s innovation made possible a viable ice industry.
Despite rapid expansion, the Hudson Valley ice harvesting trade was consistently outrun by increasing demand for ice, as populations grew, cities expanded, and industries to feed people increased. Complicating things further, ice harvesting was dependent on the weather, and, as a reporter on the trade in 1880 described, “…in not more than two out of three years is the crop a fair one.” An ill-timed week of warmer temperatures or a rain storm could dramatically reduce the ice yield.
To meet consumer demand and surmount the vagaries of weather, inventors were keenly focused on developing efficient artificial ice production and refrigeration. In its heydays — between 1840-1920, however, the Hudson Valley ice trade employed up to 20,000 men (and a thousand horses) during the intense weeks of cutting and storing the cold-dependent commodity. Ancillary industries sprung up along the river: barges and ships designed specifically for ice transport, enormous icehouses, ice tool businesses, stables, boarding houses for workers and fields to grow the insulating hay and timber for dunnage (material used to keep cargo in position in a ship’s hold).
Another premier site for ice production in New York State was Rockland Lake approximately 30 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River’s western shore in Rockland County. Now the location of Rockland Lake State Park, beginning in 1831 ice from the frozen 256-acre lake was transported with the aid of gravity about 150 feet down to the river for shipping to the city. A steam-driven inclined railway for its transport was completed by 1860. Improved machinery to replace human and horse power continued to be developed throughout the age of ice harvesting.
From approximately 1840 to 1920, ice was harvested from the Hudson River, particularly north of Poughkeepsie. The ice near New York City was not used because, as an estuary, it contained too much salt, which would result in ice that resisted freezing and melted more quickly than the ice from freshwater further north.
Ice harvesting began in January and on average continued for about six to eight weeks or until the icehouses were filled. The harvesting season was very limited and ice had to be at least six inches thick to be cut, since melting would have occurred in storage and transit; conversely, blocks too large were unmanageable for workers to transport. Men accompanied by horses, and later aided by steam-driven mechanical devices, often worked ten hours a day and seven days a week harvesting and storing ice. In January 1895, the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News reported that many pack peddlers abandoned their routes to work at ice harvesting. Residents of the mid-Hudson Valley who made bricks or farmed in the warmer months, found good employment in the winter harvesting of ice, while other workers handled the shipping of stored ice to markets in the fall, summer and spring.
The process of harvesting ice from the river involved clearing snow or dirt from the surface with horse drawn plows, and sometimes planing smooth the surface. The area was measured and then scored into a grid by a horse-drawn “marker,” resembling a plow. Another tool (Wyeth’s ice plow, or a derivative of his invention) then cut blocks free. The long lengths of ice were then floated toward the shore in an open water channel. Once they neared the ice house on shore, a final cut was made with a 4 or 5 foot-long handheld saw. The ice was moved into the ice house by a horse-drawn or, later, steam-powered elevator or conveyor belt. Workers used a pole to hook the floating blocks of ice and position them on the elevator. Inside the ice house, the blocks were insulated by sawdust and hay between layers to prevent them from melting and fusing. When the demand for ice
In its heyday, Staatsburg had at least ten private commercial icehouses. Many companies operated in New York City, but had an ice house in Staatsburg to store ice from that section of the river including the American Ice Company, the New York Ice Company, the Mutual Benefit Company and the Knickerbocker Ice Company. According to an article in the New York Daily Herald published February 13, 1874, the Mutual Benefit Company had an ice house at Staatsburg that held 15,000 tons of ice. The company employed 75 men, 10 boys, fivehorses, and a steam engine to fill the ice house. The largest ice harvesting company was the Knickerbocker Ice Company, which was based in New York, but had ice houses all along the Hudson. Their ice house in Staatsburg held 25,000 tons of ice and they employed over 10,000 men in the region. In 1896 they had a capacity for 1.8 million tons of ice, which was approximately 50 percent of the entire industry in New York. began from March onward, barges carrying anywhere from 400 to 1000 tons of ice would ship the ice down the river to sell.
In addition to commercial ice harvesting in Staatsburg, one of the most successful companies in the village produced tools for the trade. After J.H Bodenstein (1823-1875) emigrated from Germany, he settled in Staatsburg and started a blacksmith shop that made tools used for ice harvesting. The business officially became the Staatsburg Ice Tool Works in 1868 and the family business continued for four generations. The family held approximately twenty patents for various ice harvesting and other tools including this one for an ice cutting tool. A catalogue of their ice tools is found here.
The works sold their products both across the United States and abroad. The business lasted for more than a century before closing in 1984 when all of the buildings and equipment were sold by the fourth generation of the Bodenstein family.
Once ice was cut from the river and stored in the ice house, its final destination was the ice box inside individual homes and restaurants, or businesses such as breweries and food transport. After the Civil War, ice boxes became affordable for the working class, which contributed to the growth of the ice harvesting industry.
The end of it all came into view when the first electric refrigerator for home use was invented in 1913, but it was not until the late 1920s and several models later that the use of an electric refrigerator in the home became more common and affordable. This rang the death knell for the ice harvesting industry. Artificial ice was now able to keep food cold all year long and ice harvesting became a thing of the past by the 1930s.
Today the Hudson River rarely freezes long enough to produce ice of any useable thickness so ice harvesting really is a thing of the past in the Hudson Valley.