We all know how important water is to the Catskill Mountains and their relationship to New York City residents. While these days we only think of that importance in liquid form, one hundred years ago it was equally important in its frozen form.
Most of the ice used in the City was provided by the commercial ice industry that stretched along the Hudson River. Catskills ice was stored for use locally, to keep dairy products fresh through out the warm months, and to help feed the summer hostelry business. The heat of the city in July and August would turn sleepy towns throughout the Catskills into bustling mini-cities. Populations would swell from a few hundred to a few thousand. The grand buildings on Main Street in Stamford led to it being called the Queen of the Catskills. In Fleischmanns the number of lodging guests at its heyday grew to 10,000. The ability to house families, keep them fed, and transport their husbands back and forth to work in the city combined with the strong dairy industry, is reflected in the lingering architecture of grand hotels, guesthouses, farmhouses and dairy barns, and railroads. These buildings and way of life truly shaped Delaware County’s villages and roadsides.
View photos from the 2010 Ice Harvest Festival here.
You can still see exactly how the process of harvesting ice works every February at the Hanford Mills Museum in East Meredith. Weather permitting the harvest takes place the first Saturday of February when the Mill comes alive with history and fills the icehouse to its rafters with eighty-pound blocks of ice.
We’ve all heard the warnings as kids when we went skating – be careful of the ice. At the Mill they use six inches of ice as being the minimum depth they need to allow the groups of visitors and volunteers on the mill’s pond. But getting to the point where the public can participate in the event takes a lot of work. Snow must constantly be removed from the ice so that it can harden faster. (Snow actually insulates the ice from freezing.) Starting early in the morning the staff will get the process going by scoring the ice into a grid pattern with the ice plow. The ice plow looks like a small version of a field plow – this one with two handles and set on sled runner blades sharpened to score the ice. This guides the cutting process so it yields manageable and stackable ice blocks. The old-time saws of various shapes and sizes are brought out as well as the breaking bars or ice awls. Typically the saws are between five and six feet long. Then a waterway is cut through the ice to be used as a channel to move future ice blocks across the pond to the ramp. The ice sleds are brought out as well as an old Buick wagon to transport ice from the pond to the icehouse. Then the ice harvesting begins.
At the ramp a volunteer checks the block for a generally square shape so it will fit easily into the icehouse. This comes to roughly 12-15 inches square by however deep the ice is. In days past, some of these were cut further to accommodate the size a typical icebox a house would have. Iceboxes were built into the wall of the house with access from the outside. Throughout the day the rejects pile up on the side of the pond. The block is shoved halfway up the ramp manually with a long handled ice pike pole. Halfway up the ramp a grapple hook (more like a claw) is placed on it which has a rope attached. The block is then pulled up the rest of the way to the loading dock. From there it is loaded and move across the Mill property to the icehouse. The old ice scale is outside for folks who want to see how much a block of ice can weigh. The job of stacking the ice inside is left to a young able bodied volunteer who can grab the 80 to sometimes 100 pound blocks and lift and stack them inside the ice house.
Being a sawmill the insulation of choice at Hanford Mills ice harvest is, well, sawdust. Many farms and other ice harvest would use hay, another readily available insulation. The outside is heavily insulated and each layer of ice receives a layer of insulation as well. Ice harvested in the winter lasted long into the summer, keeping dairy products fresh while being transported and at their destination. Ice that came from Delaware County waters was known for its’ clarity and quality – something that is still valued by the 9 million city people who rely on its’ water for drinking.
Once rural electricity reached Delaware County just after World War II (starting in 1944 in Delhi to be exact), ice harvesting moved from necessity to tradition. Hanford Mills does a wonderful job of celebrating this history, and guests to the Mill are welcomed to join in on almost every aspect of the ice harvesting. Additionally, horse drawn sleigh rides around the Mill property go on all day. The blacksmith shop is open with live demonstrations. There is ice carving in the morning, live music performances throughout the day, and warm food and beverages inside the old hardware store. Kids of all ages look forward to this day every winter.
You may wonder why Hanford Mills actually bothers to store all that ice – the answer will await you if you visit the Mill on the 4th of July week-end. For more information on Hanford Mills and other great events that celebrate timber, sawmills, small engines and community life, visit www.hanfordmills.org.