THROUGH THE WOODS: The necessity of ice

I SPENT THE LONG WEEKEND birding around Columbia County and looking at the ice on the Hudson River. I remembered our “icehouse,” which was used to store winter ice for use throughout the year. Before electricity and modern refrigeration, it was the only means of keeping food and drink cool in the warm months, and making a very special treat, ice cream. Depending on family size and usage it varied in dimensions and the building was placed so it could be shaded by trees or other buildings. Ours was about 12’X14’ by maybe 15’ tall and had two levels. Ice blocks had to be made in a size that could be handled, and also so the ice could fit into an icebox in the house, usually, one-foot square blocks or some cut smaller. We always had refrigerators and freezers, so it was interesting to hear my father’s stories (Donald Kern) about all the winter work that had to be done to fill the ice house each year.

First, the building had to be cleaned out and fresh sawdust put on the floor. Straw could also be used. My grandparents on both sides got their ice from Acker’s Pond, which was a dammed-up part of our farm stream near Harlemville. Anytime it got down to well below freezing and the ice was over a foot thick all the neighbors would gather at the pond with their teams of horses and sleighs and tools to begin cutting ice. Test holes were chopped, and then in the thick areas, the ice was scraped clean of snow. Next it was scored in rows so a horse-drawn ice plow could be used to cut down further to above the water’s surface.

The ice plow was an interesting device about four feet long with large teeth and handles like a dirt plow. A team of horses was used to pull it across the ice while a man used the handles to keep it cutting straight through the scored line. Rarely a thin spot was reached and a horse or the whole team might fall through so everyone was prepared to hook other teams onto them and pull them out. What a cold dunk that must have been.

Hudson River Tides piled ice at Cheviot. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

A bonfire was kept going near shore to keep people warm and provide warm coffee and food. Heavy horse blankets kept the horses warm if they weren’t working. People’s lives depended on their horses so most farmers took very good care of their animals. To replace a good horse meant spending a lot of money and most men were used to and fond of their teams.

Individual blocks of ice were cut out by hand using chopping bars and hand saws, and lifted out with ice tongs. Most of the tools had a ring or loop top and a rope was attached to keep them from being lost into the water. The blocks were put onto the sleighs and then drawn home to be put into the ice house.

Women and children were not excluded from the process. My father said his older sister (Gertrude Kern, later Wilber) put the sawdust between the layers of ice and down the sides to insulate it and to keep the blocks from sticking together. As the layers got higher the upper-level door was used to bring in the ice blocks until almost the roof was reached. As the ice was needed someone had to go up there by ladder with a shovel and ice tongs to remove and lower a block, and then cover up the remaining ice with sawdust or straw.

A cubic foot block of ice weighs about 58 lbs. so you had to have some muscle to carry them around. A 2’x2’x2’ block weighed about 460 lbs., so the smaller ones were easier to handle by one person. If you have walked the trails at Nutten Hook (pronounced “Newton”) off Rt. 9 J, you probably saw the remains of a commercial icehouse. Hudson River ice processing was a major Columbia County industry during the winter months of the mid 19th through early 20th century. New York City required huge amounts of ice, which was shipped out from Nutten Hook. I remember how polluted the river was in my childhood and have always wondered about the purity of this ice in later years of the ice business. Some of my father’s old ice tools are in the basement and I enjoy looking at them. It is humbling to know how difficult it was and how hard our ancestors worked. Now we work on computers, go to the fridge for ice cubes and a drink, and take our soft lives for granted. What a difference a hundred years can make. My parents also thought this, and now we wonder the same. What changes in daily life could be next?

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