ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Long before the modern comforts of refrigeration and air conditioning, one of the only ways to keep something or someone cool during the peak of summer heat was to harvest enough ice during the winter to make it last. Once a thriving industry during Western New York’s brutal winters, the practice of harvesting and storing ice is lost on many.
One of the last ice houses in Western New York lies out on Charles Point in Sodus Bay. While no longer used to store ice the building still serves a purpose as a community center keeping the building relevant into the modern day.
Despite its changing purpose that building stands as a reminder of a bygone era where to keep cool during the summer, you had to hope that the winter before was cold enough to freeze the lakes, ponds, rivers, and according to Derek Pratt, the director of education at the erie canal museum in Syracuse even the canals around you
“There was also ice harvested on the Erie Canal, however, that was strictly regulated by the state because of pretty high levels of pollution,” said Pratt. “It was largely for refrigeration purposes.”
In fact, refrigeration in general was one of the main reasons the ice was harvested according to James Buswell, who used to run ice-cutting demonstrations at Beaver Lake in Baldwinsville.
“The reason for having the let’s say harvesting of ice was that before that time people dried their meat. They pickled it,” said Buswell.
The best ice, at least as said in the book “Irondequoit Story”, came from the Irondequoit Bay area, much of which was shipped to breweries in Rochester according to the book. To store the ice, as mentioned large ice houses were built all over the buildings either partially or fully underground.
Ice was stored and insulated using sawdust or straw in hopes it would last. One of the largest stood at Oklahoma Beach along Irondequoit Bay which fell victim to a fire in 1939. Others were found along the Erie Canal which often served as an important method of delivery for the stored ice
“There were a lot of ice houses along the canal from various maps that we have in our collections. Here you can see lots of ice houses because the canal is such an important transportation route. Everyone’s ice is largely being shipped by canal boat,” said Pratt.
Ice harvesting was often grueling dangerous work that entailed long days of work due to the short season for harvesting ice that typically lasted from January to February during the coldest time of the year. For workers along the canal this type of work was not too dissimilar to the risks they took during the working season along the canal and with no work being done during the winter some turned to ice harvesting as an alternative
“The Erie Canal operated generally from April to November and even to this day the canal still closes for the winter. That’s when the state does maintenance on the canal system and also people do wintertime activities on the canal,” said Pratt. ”Most canalers had to find something to do during the winter and I’m sure ice harvesting was one of those things things.”
Ultimately the industry slowly disappeared from the northeast once modern refrigeration became more prevalent in the middle of the 20th century. Partially, the demise of the ice industry in the northeast comes from one of its own residents, Willis Carrier, who invented modern air conditioning.