Annual Ice Harvest Evokes Pre-Fridge Era in New York

March 2, 2005

On a hot summer day, few things beat a bowl of old-fashioned, homemade strawberry ice cream. This June, residents of Tully, New York, will get just such an authentic treat, right down to the ice used to freeze the cream.

The ice was hauled out of the town's Green Lake this February during the annual Tully Ice Harvest. The 18-inch-by-18-inch (46-centimeter-by-46-centimeter) chunks of frozen water are currently packed with insulating sawdust in the town's ice shed.

"It keeps the old ways alive a bit," said Ronald Luchsinger, a Tully-area farmer who organized the harvest. "A lot of people don't have a clue what went on years ago. Today they just open the refrigerator door, and when the refrigerator goes bad, they get another one."

Tully, like much of upstate New York, is surrounded by glacial potholes, lakes that formed when glacial chunks melted at the end of the last ice age. The lakes are perfect for harvesting ice, and Tully's location on a railroad line made the town a central player in the pre-refrigerator ice industry.

"It was big business in the early 1900s," said Eleanor Preston, who runs the Tully Area Historical Society. "They shipped a lot to New York City, believe it or not," she said, noting that the society even has records showing that the town's ice was once shipped to South America.

These days, Tully residents pull out antique saws, picks, a sled, and horses and haul enough ice out from the town's central lake in one February day to make ice cream for about 200 people during the town's June Strawberry Festival.

Harvesting Ice

Festival organizers ensure the ice is thick enough to support a harvest. The surface of Green Lake must freeze about 6 inches (15 centimeters) or more. In 2004 the ice did not pass the test and the festival was cancelled.

Luchsinger, the ice harvest organizer, said that on the day of the festival, a crew goes out on the lake with a horse and plow to score grooves in the ice.

Next, the crew cuts a channel from the shore out to the grid pattern with a saw that "looks like a crosscut wood saw but with a handle on just one end," Luchsinger said. Then they cut two sides of each ice block, knock the blocks loose with a pick, and float them down the channel to shore.

Each block of ice is as thick as the lake ice at the time of harvest—typically 12 inches (31 centimeters). Each block weighs 50 to 70 pounds (23 to 32 kilograms).

On shore the blocks are slid up a ramp and onto a horse-drawn sled that ferries the blocks of ice to the ice shed. In the shed the blocks are packed in sawdust, which serves as both insulation and a protective layer to keep the chunks separate.

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