Keeping Cool

Until the advent of refrigeration, ice was a major seasonal industry in New England. Although most small dairy farms supplying only the immediate needs of themselves and their neighbours could get by with spring-houses, the larger dairies that shipped milk used ice. It was also used by families for refrigeration: ice-boxes were usually built of heavy wood with a tin lining. Ice peddlers would travel around the town on a daily route, selling 10 or 15 cent blocks as needed.
The ice trade truly took off with the railroad industry. Railroads made long-distance, fast food shipments possible as well as substantially increasing the amount of weight that could be shipped. Ice was both a shipped product and a requirement for shipping other products. By packing products in a layer of ice and sawdust shipments could be made year round; however, such packing was heavy and cost-prohibitive prior to rail service*. In New Hartford ice was shipped out by rail, mainly to the New York market; but products such as beef and oysters were shipped in by rail, packed in ice.
Ice in New Hartford came from the numerous mill ponds and natural ponds throughout the town. West Hill pond produced ice of a very high quality due to the clean nature of its spring-fed water and undeveloped state. The largest ice producer, however, was Greenwoods pond. The Greenwoods company’s 15,000 cubic foot ice house, located on the north shore of the pond, was directly connected to the rail line.  Ice houses were purpose built structures designed to store ice through the summer, they relied on sawdust insulation and very tightly built structures to reduce the loss through melting.  Harvesting ice began in mid-January and ran through February.  The ice was cut into 2’x3′ blocks and run by a series of conveyors into the ice house for storage or directly to the rail line, where it was loaded on flatbeds for shipment.  The cutting of the ice on the lake and loading the railcars was all done by hand.

In 1910 the ice house burned. This was not an uncommon fate for ice houses, as odd as it may seem. Because ice was stored in sawdust, the building was actually extremely flammable, especially late in the summer when it would be nearly empty; poor ventilation would have also increased the fire danger. Shortly after the fire, health concerns shut down ice production at Greenwoods pond completely. However, ice from the Farmington River continued to be produced. John Stavnitsky, whose farm was just above Satan’s Kingdom, had a pond fed by the Farmington and obtained special dispensation to sell ice, despite the shut down of the Greenwoods pond upstream. He supplied much of the town, including some of the dairy farms. However, when refrigeration began to be used in the 1930’s ice production quickly vanished.

*Unless the area was served by canals, barges like railroads could make a profit from heavy, low value freight. I should note, ice was shipped in earlier eras: the Roman Emperors are reputed to have had ice shipped in from the Alps…

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