The Coldest Harvest

More than a century ago, ice cut from rivers and ponds was a cash crop


| February 2009



Ice field

In large commercial operations, crews of hundreds of men and dozens of teams of horses worked the ice field while more men stacked ice in the icehouse. When the local workforce was inadequate, outside workers were transported in to get the job done.

Image from the June 1880 U.S. Census.

Ice: Today it’s as close as the automatic ice maker in your kitchen. But throughout the 19th century, long before the advent of electric refrigeration, ice was a commodity to be harvested just like corn or cotton.

Frederic Tudor, the son of a Boston lawyer, is credited with being the first entrepreneur to build a business empire out of ice. In the early 1800s, Tudor hit on the idea of harvesting ice from Massachusetts ponds and shipping it to ports in New York, Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans.

The ice trade flourished, and Tudor and his competitors were soon selling thousands of tons of ice to restaurants, hotels and homeowners up and down the East Coast. By the 1830s, Tudor was shipping ice to the Caribbean, England and as far away as Calcutta, India (it took four months for a sailing ship loaded with 180 tons of ice to travel from Boston to Calcutta – but it still reached its destination with 100 tons of ice). By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, icehouses in the Hudson River Valley were harvesting about 3 million tons of ice each winter.

The railroads proved a boon to the ice industry. In 1848-49, the New York & Harlem Railroad was extended from New York City to an area known as the Ice Pond. There, as many as 200 men were employed each winter to harvest and load ice aboard rail cars for the 70-mile trip to New York City. The industry not only provided welcome work for local farmers, but gave them an opportunity to hire out their teams of workhorses as well.

With the introduction of the icebox in the mid-1800s, town folk could buy ice from vendors who began selling ice door-to-door from horse-drawn wagons. But in the years before ice vendors reached rural America, farm families had just two ways to keep food cold during warm weather. If there was a spring on their property, they could build a spring house to store perishable foods such as butter and milk. Or they could build an icehouse to store blocks of ice they harvested each winter from a nearby pond or river.

Farmers often harvested and stored ice for their own use in icehouses built of stone or lumber. The walls were frequently insulated with several inches of sawdust, and sawdust or straw was packed around the ice as it was unloaded. Several icehouses still stand today, including a limestone icehouse and dairy on the historic Jacob Bushong home in the Shenandoah Valley, one at a 125-year-old Amish homestead in Nappanee, Ind., and an historic octagonal wood icehouse on the Croft Farm near Cherry Hill, N.J.