Rockland Lake and the Hudson Valley Ice Industry

Before refrigerators and freezers, the Hudson Valley, particularly Rockland Lake, supported a thriving ice industry



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filling the ice house paintingFilling the Ice House, painted in 1934 by artist Harry Gottlieb, depicts an icehouse near the artist’s Woodstock home

Painting courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

Rockland Lake was the biggest — but by no means the only — ice company in the Valley. The area around Castleton and Schodack, in Rensselaer County, was another big provider, with a dozen or so icehouses located on the banks of the Hudson or the islands just offshore. All this ice brought with it significant social and cultural changes. It helped keep meat, fish, and dairy products safe, improving both food quality and the public’s health. The availability of ice meant that beer could be brewed and stored all year long; more than 120 breweries were up and running in Manhattan and Brooklyn by 1879. And ice was used medicinally, as hospitals dispensed it to fever victims to help lower body temperature.

There was even a market scandal involving ice. In the 1890s, accusations of price fixing surfaced. In 1896, the major ice companies, including Knickerbocker, were consolidated in a national trust; ice prices subsequently doubled, leading to public outcry and ice demonstrations. New York’s mayor, Robert Van Wyck, and other city officials were accused of conspiring to create a virtual ice monopoly, and the public learned that the mayor and his brother had been given $1.7 million in the trust’s stock. Not surprisingly, the scandal led to the mayor’s defeat in the 1901 election.

Closer to home, the ice industry contributed to the growth of Rockland County, says Gretchen Weerheim, former curator of education for the Historical Society of Rockland County. “The actual harvest only lasted about three weeks a year, but it gave farmers some extra income in winter,” she says. And it drew seasonal workers, many of whom settled in the area and raised their families there. “Longtime residents here generally have someone who worked in the ice industry or knew someone in it,” Weerheim says.

But many newer and younger residents have no idea there ever was such an industry, she says. “I love the whole spirit of enterprise, that a couple of guys came to the lake and figured out how to make this pure water work as ice. These guys figured out how to make an icehouse that kept ice into the summer, and how to ship it around the world.”

It wasn’t scandal, though, that killed the ice industry. It was electricity and refrigeration. Artificial ice replaced the natural kind, and home freezers meant supply could rise and demand fall. The Knickerbocker Ice Company closed in 1924. In 1926, one of the icehouses caught fire during demolition, and the fire spread and destroyed much of the village of Rockland Lake. The foundation of the ice company remains today, marked by a historical plaque, but not much else exists to remind us of this once-flourishing industry.

With one big exception. Why do you yell at your kids to “close the freezer”? It’s probably because your parents or grandparents used to yell it at you. (They may even have called it “the icebox.”) They yelled because they remembered the days of delivered ice. “You couldn’t leave the icebox open very long, or the ice would melt,” Weerheim says. And that was a big deal in those days.

knickerbocker ice festival sculpturesPhotograph courtesy of Knickerbocker Ice Festival

Ice, Ice, Baby

Celebrate Rockland Lake’s historical ice-capades at the fifth annual Knickerbocker Ice Festival at Rockland Lake State Park. This year’s event takes place Jan. 29-30 and features ice carving, local artists and crafters, history lectures and programs, entertainment, a food court showcasing lower Valley restaurants, and the KIDZ Ice Park with igloo building and snow bowling. For more information, visit www.knickerbockericefestival.com.

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