Aug 14, 2009 Steve McMahon Uncategorized
Now, we’re into the dog days of summer. It hasn’t been a particularly hot one, but a good summer just the same. When the heat and humidity get the best of you, it’s nice to run to the refrigerator for a cold drink or the freezer for some ice cream. Now that our cars and homes are even air-conditioned, we take something like home refrigeration for granted. But, there was a time when ice came from an icehouse and was kept in an ice box, and the ice box (not a refrigerator or freezer) kept things cold.
Back before home refrigeration and rural electrification became common in the 1930’s, ice was harvested on local lakes, ponds, and canals. The ice was stored in icehouses and delivered to homes and businesses. This was the only way to keep things cold throughout the summer.
According to a Messenger article in January 1972, by Tony Christopher, “A little west of Cooper’s Marina once stood an icehouse which stored quantities of ice for summer use .ice was cut and put away in large sheds to be delivered to Baldwinsville residents in the warm months. One local ice field was Houghtaling’s Sawmill Pond at the source of Crooked Brook on Ellsworth Road in the Town of Van Buren. From the 1870s through the 1930s, the mill and pond were owned in succession by Maynard Smith, Elmer Ellsworth and Orlando Houghtaling, all of whom were icemen. In fact, Christopher goes on to say that, “Some folks will remember the name ‘E.E. Ellsworth’ on two yellow ice wagons drawn by teams of gray horses, covering all the village streets in the 1910 era .A house customer would hang at the window a card sign having large figures facing each of the four sides, and marked 25, 50, 75 and 100. The numerals facing up indicated (the) amount of ice wanted.”
The ice was cut in uniform blocks by hand or horse plough, and later, by mechanical saws. Then, it was drawn by man or horse to shore, where it was dragged or drawn by horse to the icehouse. It was stacked tightly together in the icehouse and covered by several layers of sawdust or wood chips. Thus preserved, the ice would last long into the summer. Christopher went on to say that “Fifty years ago, most bodies of water were quite pure for the purpose of gathering ice. The winters were cold enough to make ice of proper thickness. Usually, from the middle of January to the last of February, bodies of water froze sufficiently to cut ice. An extended period of near-zero weather was the ice-maker.” Obviously, the timing depended on the weather, and we all know how unpredictable the weather can be (this summer being a case in point). Regardless, a February 1906 article in the Syracuse Post-Standard claimed that the average ice harvest began on Jan. 25.
Throughout the 1920s, the United States Department of Agriculture issued alerts encouraging farmers to plan their ice harvests in advance. USDA Farmer’s Bulletin #1078 of January 1920, was entitled “Harvesting and Storing Ice on the Farm.” It stated that “Where a stream of water or pond is available in the northern section of the United States, natural ice can be harvested and stored at low cost….Under ordinary circumstances from about one-half to one ton of ice per cow is needed annually for cooling cream and from one and one-half to two tons for cooling milk on a dairy farm.” The bulletin further advises farmers on various topics related to ice harvesting, including the sources of ice, the size of the ice field, removing snow from the surface, wetting down the field, laying off the field, the size of ice cakes, cutting the ice and the construction, capacity, and cost of icehouses.
Based on this USDA bulletin, the Baldwinsville Gazette & Farmers’ Journal urged farmers on Jan. 1, 1920, to “Get ready for (the) ice harvest. Each year dairymen lose thousands of dollars from returned sour milk, poor butter and low-quality cheese. These losses are largely due to improper cooling of milk and cream on the farm .For good results, milk and cream should be cooled to fifty degrees or lower and held there, and as this usually can best be done by the use of ice, dairymen should take advantage of any nearby lake or stream obtain a supply of ice for next year. The ice-harvesting season fortunately comes at a time when there is the least work on the farm for men and teams, and consequently the actual money cost is actually not very great.”
The very next year, this caveat didn’t come from the federal government until much later. On March 24, 1921, the Gazette cautioned farmers that the “ice-harvest time (is) at hand. Farmers who have not already done so, should prepare to lay by a store of ice now for cooling milk and for household use next summer.” Despite the severity and length of our winters in upstate New York, the timing of the local ice harvest varied significantly. In 1890, W.B. Taylor and M. Murphy waited until March 13 to begin their ice harvest in Sand Springs (at the base of Whiskey Hollow near Dead Creek). But in 1896, M.D. Voorhees of Baldwinsville had “already housed 1,000 tons of ice for the summer trade,” by Feb. 27 and was still harvesting. By the way, the Gazette went on to say that he had “dropped a cake of ice on the great toe of his right foot and is very lame in consequence.” In 1903, the ice harvest in Lamson was already “at its height” by Jan. 27. And in 1927, the ice harvest in South Granby was completely finished by Feb. 17, so farmers had “their icehouses filled with a good quality of ice from H.J. Cook’s mill pond.”
In addition to Cook’s Mill Pond near the Granby town line in Lysander, another ice field was Mud Lake, better known today as Beaver Lake. Cecil and Stanley Reeves were raised on Reeves Road just west of there with their twin sisters Rosalyn and Rosalie. Stan remembers his grandfather, Arthur Reeves, harvesting ice on Mud Lake with some of the men from neighboring farms. As Stanley tells it, “J. Leonard Adsit, who lived at the corner of Vann Road and East Mud Lake Road, had a power saw for cutting ice. The men would cut ice on Mud Lake, put it on a sled, and haul it home from Charlie Keller’s Landing off of Fenner Road. One time one of the men came home soaking wet. He had fallen right through the ice into the lake, and he was cold, wet, and mad.”
Cecil continued. “I think it was Charlie Fenner. He and Gramp (Arthur Reeves) used to cut ice quite a bit. Gramp would store it across the road in the icehouse. He would wait for a thaw to load the icehouse, so that the ice would settle a little before he covered it with sawdust.” Stan added that, “The ice was used to cool the milk. It had to have a temperature of 50 degrees or less before they would pick it up from the milk house.” Cecil concluded the tale. “When Gramp heard that we were going to get electricity on the farm, he immediately went right out and bought a milking machine for the barn and a Kelvinator milk cooler. We hadn’t even been wired for electricity yet, but he was so thrilled to be rid of the ice that he just couldn’t wait.”
Under the administration of FDR and his “New Deal,” the Rural Electric Administration was created in May 1935 to provide electricity and its consequent progress to the 90 percent of farms in rural America that weren’t yet electrified. The REA reached all the way to the little hamlet of Lysander. My great grandmother, Etta Hyatt Foster, kept a detailed daily diary throughout her life. In February 1938, she records that Frank Carncross of Plainville wired the house and barns of the dairy farm owned and operated by Etta’s husband and sons on Church Road northwest of Beaver Lake. She also notes that after light fixtures, their first major purchase was a refrigerator.
By June 1941, the Gazette reported that “Central and Northern New York farm life today is not the struggle it was even 10 years back .according to rural electrification studies recently completed by Central New York Power Corporation .97 per cent of the rural population in the company’s franchise area now have electric service .as the result of an aggressive rural extension program .making service available to some 9.600 rural customers who, prior to the program, were without service….As a result of the line extension programs, farmers have turned to the electric way of doing things .Cows are milked milk is kept cool and all this is accomplished without the back breaking physical strain of past years .Electric ranges, heated running water, electric refrigerators and all the additional conveniences of the city wife have found their way into the farm home.”
By the mid-1940s, the annual ice harvest had become a thing of the past in upstate New York, just as it had in other northern climes. In January 1944, the Gazette observed that out East River Road way, “Among the farm folk, wood cutting is well under way and the annual ‘butchering’ tasks are demanding attention. The old-time ice harvest is no longer carried on in this vicinity.” Two years later the Cato Citizen reported that “The Dairymen’s League (milk) plant at Cato is being remodeled. There is to be a mechanized refrigeration plant which will do away with the annual ice harvest.”
So, the next time you reach for a cold one, be thankful that you didn’t have to first harvest ice out in the middle of Mud Lake last winter. By the way, if you want to know more about the time when ice came from an icehouse, check out the Beaver Lake Nature Center. Every winter the center hosts family-oriented programs about the history of local ice harvesting, including hands-on demonstrations of cutting ice on the lake.
Well, the New York State Fair, the oldest state fair in the nation, begins Aug. 27. So, in just two weeks, on Aug. 26, read about another old fair, “The Biggest Fair In Town,” which was located just six miles northeast of the village of Baldwinsville. Looking Backward will appear in the Messenger every other week, as long as there are stories to tell. If you have questions about this story or suggestions for future ones, including any local historical images or information, please contact me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Casale’s collection
Cutting ice with a mechanical saw circa 1930, probably on either Mud Lake or Cook’s Mill Pond.