Tag Archives: Staatsburgh State Historic Site

When Ice Came from the Hudson River: Ice Harvesting in Staatsburg

Before the invention of electric refrigeration, how did food and perishables keep cold, especially during the warm summer months?  The answer is ice.  Large blocks of ice cut from a river or lake during the winter would keep food items cool all summer.  But how did the ice move from there into the home?

That feat was the work of an expansive ice harvesting industry, which was active throughout much of the northeast coast of the country (as well as inland, in northern states) between the 1830s and 1920s, and which was dominated for several decades by production on the Hudson River and nearby lakes.

Workers guide a horse pulling an ice-cutting rig on the Hudson River, circa 1912. (Photo Credit – New York State Archives # A3045- 78_830)

Although Staatsburg in Dutchess County is a quiet hamlet today, it was once a bustling hub of the ice harvesting industry.  Ice was a very valuable natural resource, which required an impressive amount of infrastructure and investment to cut and transport to customers. The labor came from a small army of men and horses.

In the 19th century, as cities grew in size and population, the demand for ice to preserve food and cool people in warm weather grew tremendously, as urban populations did not have immediate access to frozen ponds and rivers.  Hamlets and towns along the Hudson developed a robust trade to supply the demand downriver in New York City, and export ice to other, farther-flung locations.

Another significant consumer of ice was the brewing industry, which used ice in regulating the temperature of fermentation so that beer could be made year-round rather than in a limited number of months.  As the meat-packing industry grew, it too consumed large quantities of harvested ice. 

Records by two different ice companies reflect the harvests from Staatsburg and Rockland Lake in this April 1866 report in the Rockland County Journal. (Photo Credit – Peter Stott, “The Knickerbocker Ice Company and Inclined Railway at Rockland Lake,” Journal of the Society of Industrial Archeology, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1979), page 9)

Some households, like the affluent Gilded Age owners of what today is the Staatsburgh State Historic Site, had the luxury of filling their ice house with ice from a body of water adjacent to their property, but others did not have the same resources and had to purchase ice.

This country estate and 79-room mansion of the very wealthy Mills family frequently hosted parties of houseguests for elegant weekends, and boasted all of the era’s cutting-edge technology and luxurious amenities available, including electricity, gravity-fed plumbing and ice-cooled culinary delicacies.

With a large staff of estate and farm workers, Staatsburgh had the labor needed to cut and store a year-round supply of ice from the Hudson for its own icehouse each winter. A period photograph of the estate buildings at the river’s edge suggests the location of the now missing icehouse: a peaked roof appears behind the double-roofed boathouse complex on the water, and to the right of the powerhouse, which generated electricity for the estate. (While the powerhouse still stands along the riverbank, its chimney, seen in this photograph, no longer exists).

This photo likely depicts Staatsburgh’s now-removed icehouse, its peaked roof visible behind the double-roofs of the boat house, and to the left of the powerhouse and its chimney. This location would have placed the icehouse on the incline of a steep slope toward the river, which was needed for drainage of melt water from the icehouse. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Judging from this photo, the estate’s icehouse sat several yards away from the riverbank, on a fairly steep incline, which would have provided the excellent drainage needed as ice melt occurred during the year.  Icehouses uniformly had a system of drainage at their base, along with insulated walls (often double walls) and interiors carefully designed to reduce humidity (which promotes melt) and provide maximum insulation.  A well-designed icehouse, packed expertly, could provide ice a full year until the next ice harvest.

As seen below, the ice box inside the mansion at Staatsburgh is quite large, meriting an entire room in the basement as part of the house devoted to food preparation.  It bears a brass label reading, ‘The Lorillard 1168 Broadway,’ which identifies its maker.  Lorillard was a company that manufactured refrigeration units from 1877 until approximately 1920.  The company produced some of the most expensive iceboxes on the market which could be found in the homes of wealthy families like the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and the Mills.

The Lorillard brand icebox at the Staatsburgh mansion was top of the line during the Gilded Age. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Producing and storing ice had been practiced since ancient times in Asia and other parts of the world, by controlling evaporation, but in America, the impetus for a fast-growing ice harvesting industry, drawing on naturally-produced ice in cold weather, is credited to the “Ice King of Boston,” a man named Frederick Tudorwho between 1805 and 1836, developed technical advances that made ice harvesting and storage profitable, creating a mass market for ice. Through tireless experimentation, Tudor reduced loss from ice melt in storage from 66 to 8 percent, and created markets for shipping his product in southern states and the Caribbean.

One of Tudor’s employees, Nathaniel Wyeth, patented the horse-drawn ice cutter which was the first tool to cut even-sided, regular blocks of ice. Before his invention, ice was hacked out in irregular chunks, which led to much loss from melt and inefficient shipping and storage. Wyeth’s innovation made possible a viable ice industry.

Another premier site for ice production in New York State was Rockland Lake approximately 30 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River’s western shore in Rockland County. Now the location of Rockland Lake State Park, beginning in 1831 ice from the frozen 256-acre lake was transported with the aid of gravity about 150 feet down to the river for shipping to the city. A steam-driven inclined railway for its transport was completed by 1860. Improved machinery to replace human and horse power continued to be developed throughout the age of ice harvesting. 

A steam-powered inclined railway brought ice from Rockland Lake for shipment to New York City markets. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Despite rapid expansion, the Hudson Valley ice harvesting trade was consistently outrun by increasing demand for ice, as populations grew, cities expanded, and industries to feed people increased. Complicating things further, ice harvesting was dependent on the weather, and, as a reporter on the trade in 1880 described, “…in not more than two out of three years is the crop a fair one.”  An ill-timed week of warmer temperatures or a rain storm could dramatically reduce the ice yield.  

To meet consumer demand and surmount the vagaries of weather, inventors were keenly focused on developing efficient artificial ice production and refrigeration. In its heydays — between 1840-1920, however, the Hudson Valley ice trade employed up to 20,000 men (and a thousand horses) during the intense weeks of cutting and storing the cold-dependent commodity. Ancillary industries sprung up along the river: barges and ships designed specifically for ice transport, enormous icehouses, ice tool businesses, stables, boarding houses for workers and fields to grow the insulating hay and timber for dunnage (material used to keep cargo in position in a ship’s hold). 

This illustration shows the design of barges made to transport ice down the Hudson River. By 1880, author Henry hall reported that “On the Hudson, a large fleet of barges, built especially for the trade, are employed. There are about 100 of them at present…They carry from 400 to 1,100 tons of ice… A small windmill revolves around the top of the roof [of the cargo house] and drives a pump for clearing the hold of water from the melting ice.” (Photo Credit – Henry Hall, The Ice Industry of the United States: With a Brief Sketch of its History and Estimates of Production in the Different States. SOURCE: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Census Division, Tenth Census, 1880., vol.22, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1888)

From approximately 1840 to 1920, ice was harvested from the Hudson River, particularly north of Poughkeepsie. The ice near New York City was not used because, as an estuary, it contained too much salt, which would result in ice that resisted freezing and melted more quickly than the ice from freshwater further north.    

Ice harvesting began in January and on average continued for about six to eight weeks or until the icehouses were filled. The harvesting season was very limited and ice had to be at least six inches thick to be cut, since melting would have occurred in storage and transit; conversely, blocks too large were unmanageable for workers to transport. Men accompanied by horses, and later aided by steam-driven mechanical devices, often worked ten hours a day and seven days a week harvesting and storing ice. In January 1895, the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News reported that many pack peddlers abandoned their routes to work at ice harvesting. Residents of the mid-Hudson Valley who made bricks or farmed in the warmer months, found good employment in the winter harvesting of ice, while other workers handled the shipping of stored ice to markets in the fall, summer and spring.

The process of harvesting ice from the river involved clearing snow or dirt from the surface with horse drawn plows, and sometimes planing smooth the surface.  The area was measured and then scored into a grid by a horse-drawn “marker,” resembling a plow.  Another tool (Wyeth’s ice plow, or a derivative of his invention) then cut blocks free. The long lengths of ice were then floated toward the shore in an open water channel. Once they neared the ice house on shore, a final cut was made with a 4 or 5 foot-long handheld saw.  The ice was moved into the ice house by a horse-drawn or, later, steam-powered elevator or conveyor belt. Workers used a pole to hook the floating blocks of ice and position them on the elevator.  Inside the ice house, the blocks were insulated by sawdust and hay between layers to prevent them from melting and fusing. When the demand for ice began from March onward, barges carrying anywhere from 400 to 1000 tons of ice would ship the ice down the river to sell. 

A worker uses a hand saw to cut ice blocks , circa 1900. (Photo Credit – U.S. Library of Congress)

 In its heyday, Staatsburg had at least ten private commercial icehouses.  Many companies operated in New York City, but had an ice house in Staatsburg to store ice from that section of the river including the American Ice Company, the New York Ice Company, the Mutual Benefit Company and the Knickerbocker Ice Company.  According to an article in the New York Daily Herald published February 13, 1874, the Mutual Benefit Company had an ice house at Staatsburg that held 15,000 tons of ice.  The company employed 75 men, 10 boys, fivehorses, and a steam engine to fill the ice house.  The largest ice harvesting company was the Knickerbocker Ice Company, which was based in New York, but had ice houses all along the Hudson.  Their ice house in Staatsburg held 25,000 tons of ice and they employed over 10,000 men in the region. In 1896 they had a capacity for 1.8 million tons of ice, which was approximately 50 percent of the entire industry in New York. 

The icehouse for the American Ice Co. in Kingston. (Photo Credit – Kingston Daily Freeman – February 19, 1909)

In addition to commercial ice harvesting in Staatsburg, one of the most successful companies in the village produced tools for the trade. After J.H Bodenstein (1823-1875) emigrated from Germany, he settled in Staatsburg and started a blacksmith shop that made tools used for ice harvesting.  The business officially became the Staatsburg Ice Tool Works in 1868 and the family business continued for four generations. The family held approximately twenty patents for various ice harvesting and other tools including this one for an ice cutting tool.  A catalogue of their ice tools is found here.

The works sold their products both across the United States and abroad. The business lasted for more than a century before closing in 1984 when all of the buildings and equipment were sold by the fourth generation of the Bodenstein family.  

A catalogue for the Staatsburg Ice Tool Works illustrates a pair of ice tongs. (Photo Credit – J. G. Bodenstein & Co., Catalogue No. 102, accessed from Archives.org

A worker recalls his service at the Staatsburg Ice Tool Wors in the March 14, 1949 edition of the Poughkeepsie Journal.

 Once ice was cut from the river and stored in the ice house, its final destination was the ice box inside individual homes and restaurants, or businesses such as breweries and food transport. After the Civil War, ice boxes became affordable for the working class, which contributed to the growth of the ice harvesting industry.  

The end of it all came into view when the first electric refrigerator for home use was invented in 1913, but it was not until the late 1920s and several models later that the use of an electric refrigerator in the home became more common and affordable.  This rang the death knell for the ice harvesting industry.  Artificial ice was now able to keep food cold all year long and ice harvesting became a thing of the past by the 1930s.

Today the Hudson River rarely freezes long enough to produce ice of any useable thickness so ice harvesting really is a thing of the past in the Hudson Valley.  For a further look into ice harvesting in the Gilded Age and Staatsburgh’s high-end ice box, enjoy the following video from Staatsburgh interpreter, Frank Pidala.

Cover Photo – Workers use ice pike poles to guide blocks of ice through a chip canal to an ice house on the Hudson, circa 1912 (Photo Credit –
Photo: New York State Archives, #A3045-78_834)


Post by Maria Reynolds, Historic Site Assistant/Curator, Staatsburgh State Historic Site

Gilded Age Ice Skater Carved Early Path

Staatsburgh State Historic Site, formerly the Gilded Age estate of the very wealthy and socially-prominent Ruth Livingston Mills and her husband, financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills, sits along the eastern bank of the Hudson River in the mid-Hudson Valley.

Commanding a view of the river and the Catskill Mountains, the estate’s Beaux-Arts mansion was once the scene of elegant house parties each autumn weekend for the glitterati of American society. The home is still filled with the original furnishings, art and décor chosen by Ruth and Ogden Mills after its redesign by prominent architect, Stanford White, circa 1895, from a 25-room home built by Ruth’s great-grandfather into the 79-room house we see today. 

Touring the home, one is struck by its opulence but also by its regal formality: Ruth’s bedroom, with its hand-carved bed on a platform, surmounted by a lavish baldachin (a kind of ceremonial canopy), and surrounded by walls of raspberry silk brocade, seems well-suited for a queen of society. 

Ruth Mills’ bedroom at the Staatsburgh Mansion.
A formal portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills painted in 1909 by artist François Flameng. Learn more about this portrait in this January 2018 post in the NYS Parks Blog.

Among her peers, Ruth was known for her acumen as a hostess, her exclusivity (reportedly opining that there were only 20 wealthy families in New York worth knowing), and her imperious poise.  As one of her contemporaries said:

“[Ruth Mills] would invite [guests] to her house…greet them with a limp hand, languidly extended, and a far-away expression, and then apparently forget their existence.  They were chilled but impressed.”

While it might be difficult to image, this reserved, aloof woman also had an athletic side uncommon for most women of that time. She helped build the popularity of the sport of figure skating as an early prominent practitioner and benefactor. And she also had a hand in the opening of one of the earliest indoor refrigerated ice rinks in North America.

My research into her history revealed some parallels with my own life. I have been a competitive figure skater for more than 20 years, and am a U.S. Figure Skating Gold Medalist after passing tests in four disciplines including freestyle and ice dancing. Now, I coach young skaters at a rink in nearby Saugerties.

For me, like it might have been for Ruth Mills, skating is athletic and artistic, allowing one expression through music and dancing.

Ruth Mills’ skating was widely recognized during her time. An 1893 New York Herald article praised her as an accomplished and graceful ice skater.  According to the newspaper, Ruth started skating with her twin sister Elisabeth when they were girls. That would have been during the 1860s, which was a time when skating was starting to become very popular in the United States. By that time, men and women were skating together on the same ponds (one of the few athletic activities where both genders were involved together), and even the press was supportive of women skating, extolling the health benefits.

Figure skating was the first sport where women participated for the pure joy of it and where their participation with men was widely accepted.  Skating became so popular in the mid-19th century that there was an estimated crowd of 100,000 on the pond in New York City’s Central Park on Christmas Day in 1860.

Newspapers of the day took note of Ruth Mills, with one reporter writing in the 1890s: “Mrs. Ogden Mills is quite too graceful and proficient.  As if by common assent, the others stop a moment to watch her do the double Philadelphia grapevine, about the most difficult gyration on ice known to the expert.” By this point, Ruth Mills would have been about 40 years old.

A portion of an account from the New York Herald on Jan. 6, 1895 on Ruth Mills’ skating technique.

Watchers of skating today might not recognize this move, but the double Philadelphia grapevine was seen as one of the most complex techniques of its time. As described in a contemporary magazine: “The double grapevine is the same as the single, except that a loop is introduced at the beginning and also at the end of the figure. It is executed, as in the single grapevine, by passing the right foot in front of the left foot with the chain step; but instead of making a half revolution, as in the single, the body is swung completely around by the means of two turns on the right foot and an inside loop on the left.”

Maria Reynolds demonstrates the double Philadelphia grapevine skating technique.
Illustration of the double grapevine technique from a skating instruction book of the period.

While newspapers of this time made a habit of fawning praise over wealthy and powerful members of New York society, it is clear that Ruth was an accomplished skater. To the modern skater, the fact that Ruth could maneuver gracefully on ice, in the corset and multiple layers of clothing covering her from neck to foot, which Gilded Age women were required to wear, makes her ability even more impressive.

Given Ruth Mills’ self-composed demeanor, I find it hard to imagine her falling on the ice in front of people. But she must have started skating very early in life and put in much practice to become as skilled and confident as she was. Some of that early practice likely must have been on the rough ice of the frozen Hudson River at Staatsburgh when she was growing up.

We know that the river was a very popular place to skate and we have a photo of the estate superintendent’s family skating in 1916.  The cove area near the estate’s powerhouse was a popular place for local village residents to skate.

Agnes and Bill Blair, children of the caretaker of Staatsburgh State Historic Site, skate on the Hudson River circa 1916.

While Staatsburgh was the primary residence of Ruth and Ogden Mills in the autumn, like many of their social set, the couple traveled with the seasons. New York City was where the elites dwelled in the winter months, as it was the season of the opera, and of lavish balls given in assorted Fifth Avenue mansions.

Whether dancing or ice skating, the elites of New York always preferred to pursue their leisure apart from the common folk, and in 1896, many of the wealthiest families, including Ruth and Ogden Mills, contributed to the construction of one of the earliest indoor ice rinks built in New York City, the St. Nicholas Skating Rink.

Skaters at St. Nicholas Rink in 1901. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

When skating depended on a pond or river to freeze, skaters were at the whim of mother nature (sometimes they had only 15 to 20 days a season to skate), but after the creation of indoor ice surfaces, the skating season would extend much longer.

The St. Nicholas Skating Rink also was one of the earliest indoor ice rinks made of mechanically frozen ice in North America. The arena also was the site of the first game between women’s ice hockey teams in the United States, when in 1917 the St. Nicholas team defeated Boston 1–0.

An illustration in a 1900 issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine shows fashionable women playing ice hockey at the St. Nicholas Skating Rink in New York City. (Photo Credit- Hockeygods.com)

Building this rink was an investment of $300,000 (more than $9 million today) contributed principally by elite patrons like the Mills. Located on West 66th street, the rink was less than four blocks from the couple’s mansion, and contemporary newspapers accounts stated that Ruth Mills skated there nearly every morning.

Shortly after the rink opening, an article in The New York Times noted that Mrs. Mills was to host an “ice tea.”  Not the popular beverage, this exclusive social event included both skating on the rink and tables to consume tea and light refreshments.

An item in the April 5, 1896 edition of the New York Times announcing Ruth Mills’ “ice tea” event at the St. Nicholas Skating Rink.

So here, Ruth Mills got to combine her interests in both luxurious entertaining and skating. Sadly, the St. Nicholas Rink was demolished in the 1980s after a long history of hosting skating and boxing matches.

If you would like to know more about this family, and the Gilded Age lifestyle they led and the mansion in which they lived it, make a trip to Staatsburgh State Historic Site the Taconic Region.

Nearly 200 acres of the historic Mills estate is within the Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills Memorial State Park, which is open every day, all year, from sunrise to sunset, with no fee for park entry.  It includes the Dinsmore Golf Course, one of America’s oldest golf courses, as well as trails for hiking and cross-country skiing.

Guided tours and special programs are offered at the Mills mansion year-round; for programs information and hours of operation, call (845) 889-8851, or visit our website.

The 79-room Mills Mansion, which is located on the 120-acre Staatsburgh State Historic Site in Dutchess County. (Photo Credit- Andrew Halpern)

Cover Photo: The St. Nicholas Skating Rink in New York City. Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of NYS Parks.

Maria Reynolds, Ph.D., Historic Site Assistant / Curator, Staatsburgh State Historic Site

Reynolds has given lectures at Staatsburgh on “Gilded Age Tea & Talk” program series, presented each winter.  Now in its sixth season, this program series offers guests the chance to enjoy the site’s custom tea blend, created by Harney & Sons, along with scones, clotted cream, tea sandwiches and sweets, served in the mansion’s opulent formal dining room while listening to talks on various aspects of Gilded Age history.