Ice was a crop to be harvested before refrigeration made it easy to keep food cool

“Aaron F. Pangburn and Peter J. Ogsbury are building ice houses for the purpose of further advancing their interests in the creamery this coming season,” noted the Jan. 5, 1889 Enterprise.

Eagerly anticipating a string of subzero nights freezing nearby creeks and ponds to maximum thickness, these two were among the many farmers in Guilderland and other Albany County towns who were ready to begin the backbreaking, tedious chore of harvesting the ice crop, then hauling the ice cakes to their ice houses to be packed in to last through the warm months ahead.

“The order of the day is harvesting ice” or “the local ice crop has been harvested” appeared repeatedly during the months of January and February from the mid-1880s when The Enterprise began publication until the 1930s. To 21st-Century minds the terms “ice,” “crop,” and “harvest” just do not go together in the same sentence, unlike a century or more ago when the idea made perfect sense.

Like Peter J. Ogsbury, many farmers were fortunate enough to have a natural pond or were able to create one on their own property. Otherwise in Guilderland ice came from creeks such as the Bozenkill or Normanskill or from large ponds, the most frequently mentioned being Tygert’s pond on the outskirts of Guilderland Center created by damming the Black Creek.

Batterman’s mill pond in the Guilderland hamlet (today the silted in pond is still visible from Route 20 not far west from its intersection with Willow Street) also provided large quantities of ice.

In McKownville behind the McKownville Methodist Church was Henderson’s pond, reputed to have been created as a pond to provide ice. Also in McKownville was Witbeck’s pond and possibly the McKown’s Grove pond.

In the Altamont area, ice was cut at Sitterly’s, Hokirk’s and Conrad Crounse’s ponds as well as the village reservoir, although after 1910 fear of contamination caused the village to forbid reservoir ice-harvesting. The Kushaqua Hotel had its own reservoir where ice was cut and stored for its summer use.

Stephen Lainhart, who farmed his ancestral acres on what is now Lainhart Road and regularly kept a diary throughout his adult life, wrote frequent references to ice-harvesting. “Drawing ice,” “got four loads of ice from Wesley’s pond,” (Wesley Schoolcraft was his neighbor),”we worked at ice out of the Bozenkill,” “got two jags (obsolete term for loads) of ice from the covered bridge in the afternoon,” (it’s not clear which covered bridge) are a few examples.

Just as Peter Ogsbury had done, Lainhart in 1891 dug out his own pond, citing figures of cutting 203 cakes of ice there in 1901, and 180 in 1902. Even with a supply of ice from his own pond, he packed additional ice from the Bozenkill and from Tygert’s pond into his ice house.

Tools and techniques

Necessary for ice-cutting were special tools and techniques.

First, any snow on the ice’s surface was cleared as soon as the ice was thick enough to bear a man’s weight in order to remove an insulating blanket from the ice, allowing the intensely frigid nights to freeze the ice to maximum thickness.

A sharp deep freeze with no snow or wind to ruffle the water’s surface produced crystal-clear ice. The late Everett Rau recalled his father holding up a cake of ice, and putting his watch behind it to make it possible for Everett to clearly make out the watch’s numerals through the foot-thick piece of ice.

Often mentioned in the comments about ice-harvesting were both the ice’s quality, the best being “fine and clear,” and the thickness with the figures ranging from a low of 8 inches in 1890 to 26 inches at the Kushaqua’s reservoir and 24 inches at Tygert’s pond in 1888. Most years the thickness seemed to run between 10 to 14 inches.

An Enterprise contributor, who called himself “Anonymous,” wrote sporadic columns appearing in 1971 and 1972. In one, he described ice-cutting on his family’s farm pond, which seemed to have been in the McKownville vicinity.

To begin, their team pulled an “ice plow” with a sharpened blade to make a four-inch deep groove across the pond. Using that cut as a guide, the plow was pulled to make parallel grooves in the area to be cut.

A hole was cut through at the shore to put in a chute to allow the cakes of cut ice to be slid out up the bank. The blocks were then loaded onto sleds or, in the 20th-Century, in trucks to be taken to their ice house.

Once the grooves had been made, long ice saws with big teeth cut off cakes and a “spud,” a tool used to crack free the cake from the groove, allowed the cake to float freely. Then men with long pikes pushed the floating cake to the chute or slide to allow it to be removed from the pond.

During the days between Jan. 28 and Feb. 9,  1887, Stephen Lainhart tells us he “went into Knowersville for a load of sawdust,” “ Irving (his son) went after ice tongs,” “ I went to Alex Tygert’s after sawdust,” “I drawed ice, Uncle Peter and Charley helped,” “put 30 cakes in the ice house,” “drawed two loads of ice,” “Irving and myself put ice in the ice house,” “ I drawed one load of ice in the forenoon,” “I finished drawing ice. Irving helped me put some in the icehouse.”

The ice house

A skill in itself, correctly positioning the ice in the ice house so as to have minimal melting during the warmer months was key. The loads of sawdust Stephen acquired were needed to insulate the ice.

After packing the floor with sawdust, the ice cakes were then piled in layers with space left between the ice and walls to then be filled with sawdust and sometimes straw. Before the next year’s ice could be stored, the sawdust from the year before had to be cleaned out; fresh sawdust was used for the new ice crop.

The ice house constructed by Peter Ogsbury in 1889 had double doors, one set above the other, where the top half opened separately from the bottom half.  When the top of the bottom half-door was reached, sawdust had to be placed between the walls and the ice and between the ice and the closed door.

Then a ladder that had been built at the same time as the ice house was used to pile in the top layers of ice until the ice house was full. Additional sawdust was put between upper layers of ice and walls, the top of the ice, and the closed door.

The ladder was used to remove the upper ice layers when they were to be used later on. If any of the ice cakes fused together, farmers had a special crowbar-type tool to pry them apart. Any sawdust stuck to an ice cake washed right off.


Money could be made cutting and selling ice and sometimes the owner of a pond would sell the rights to someone else to cut and sell the ice. Alex. Tygert did this in 1890 when Frederick Mynderse “purchased the ice on Tygert’s pond which he will sell by the load or otherwise.”

Altamont’s Sand & Sons were noted as the village ice dealers, though they were never mentioned as being involved with harvesting itself. Others filled the ice houses of village residents: Mayor Hiram Griggs contracted with William Hokirk to fill his, while the Ward Boys filled Mr. D. G. Staley’s ice house.

Wealthy cottagers on the escarpment had theirs filled with ice from Thompson’s Lake in preparation for their summer stays. However, friends, neighbors, and relatives freely helped individual farmers fill their ice houses knowing they would reciprocate.

Innumerable enterprising young men from Guilderland and other nearby towns traveled over to the Hudson to Cedar Creek, Selkirk, or Coxsackie where commercial ice-harvesting was a major employer for a few weeks each winter when tons of ice were cut from the river, and stored in huge ice houses that could warehouse up to 50,000 tons of ice.

The ice was later shipped to New York City in specially-constructed insulated barges. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 men were employed each winter cutting Hudson River ice between Kingston and Albany.

Even though men like A. Lincoln Frederick and E.J. Severson, just to name two local men mentioned as working on the Hudson at different times over the years, had to pay room and board while there for one to three weeks, the $1.75 daily wage must have made it worthwhile.

Near Guilderland in Karners, located in the Town of Colonie, the New York Central Railroad owned two large ponds where ice was harvested and stored to be used to chill the Central Railroad’s refrigerated cars, another location where local young men went to earn cash cutting ice.

Dangerous work

Ice cutting could be dangerous work as Philip Schemerhorn discovered in 1888 when he slipped and went into the icy water in the Guilderland hamlet. Men could prevent this by wearing felt boots or cork soles.

Sometimes a team of horses came to disaster falling in. Fortunately, when Meadowdale’s William P. Crounse’s horses broke through the ice, they were able to be rescued though “with difficulty.” There were times when men or teams of horses drowned, though this does not seem to have happened in Guilderland. Men were also injured by dropped ice cakes.

A creamery

A major motivation to building ice houses was the possibility of selling milk, especially once railroads gave easy access to nearby cities. Altamont area farmers joined together to build a creamery in Altamont in 1888, an initial success, but a year later it failed due to a big drop in butter prices.

In the meantime, there was more demand for ice with the building of local hotels and the rapid increase in summer visitors here who built “cottages” on the escarpment, stayed at the town’s hotels, or boarded with area farm families.

Local butchers and fish venders needed ice as well. Ice cream became a popular summer treat. In the early 20th Century, milk stations requiring ice were being set up by big diaries where milk was picked up and farmers earned cash.

Once electrical refrigeration became common in the 1920s, commercial ice-harvesting became history. Gradually, ice-harvesting by Guilderland farmers became less and less common as use of electricity grew. By the 1930s, it would have become a rarely seen activity and it’s not likely farmers missed what was once a common cold-weather chore.