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The Ice Industry In Monroe

By James A. Nelson
It might be a shock to many of today’s generation, but refrigerators have not always been a part of the kitchen.  Prior to refrigerators we had “ice boxes,” a phrase that people continued to use when I was growing up, even long after the “icebox” was no longer in use.  The icebox was what the name implied, an insulated box or cupboard, which kept food cold with blocks of ice inserted in the top section of the box.  Icemen delivered ice to the community, usually from their own storage buildings.  Many farms and estates had their own ponds and icehouses for their personal use through the summer.

 Ice was an important industry in Monroe, used by the Cheese Company, creameries, ice cream manufacturers, local stores and households.  The primary commercial users were located around the Mill Pond in Monroe.  They were the Alexander Campbell Milk Co., Beakes Creamery, the Monroe Dairy Association and the Monroe Cheese Company. The Reed Ice Cream Corporation and Mountain Lakes Ice, which was owned by the Reid Ice Cream Corp., were located a mile south of the village.

Ice harvesting on the upper Mill Pond circa 1908

The art of ice harvesting has disappeared from our area. It was an important industry in our town from about 1870 into the 1930's, although it continued to be harvested to a much lesser degree through the 1940's for local consumption.  

Harvesting the ice required the ice to be scored so it could be sawed into 2 feet by 3 feet blocks.  In the early years, the ice was sawed by hand, but later it would be separated by power saws.  A 10 foot channel was cut through the ice to the end of the pond.  Then the ice was moved from the far end to the icehouse through the channel.  The larger icehouses had a conveyor belt to carry the ice to the top of the icehouse and down chutes to be layered by the switchman.  The most important tool to the men harvesting and layering was the pike.  The pike was a long wooden pole with an iron pointed spike and sharp hook.

The earliest information we have on the harvesting of ice in the area is a report that the Farmers Creamery (Monroe Dairy Association) and the bottling creamery (Alexander Campbell) were filling their ice houses in February 1892.  It was also reported then that Alexander Campbell was to fill its big ice house in Oxford Depot, and it would take 50 car loads to complete the job.

We all know how the Mill Pond looks by the middle of summer with the algae buildup on the pond. Today's problems are largely caused by the shallowness of the pond due to years of silt buildup.  Mayor Joseph Mancuso tried to alleviate those problems years ago with a plan to have the pond dredged, but the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation made so many demands that he was unable to implement the project.  Prior to the installation of modern sewers, however, raw sewage from the downtown section of the village flowed into the pond.

It appears that the sewage flow was a major problem when ice was an important crop in the village.  In January 1905 the State Health Inspector forbid the Campbell Creamery to use ice from the Mill Pond for creamery purposes because of their own and others' sewage.  Bringing ice from Round Lake was deemed too expensive for the creamery.  So the emptying of sewage into the Mill Pond was forbidden, and that caused a great deal of inconvenience to several individuals.  

At the end of 1900 the Reid Ice Cream Corp. purchased 50 acres of land, where they built an icehouse capable of holding 20,000 tons of ice and constructed a large pond next to their building.  Shortly after the land purchase, 13 carloads of lumber arrived by train for the construction of the large icehouse.

The Mountain Lake Ice Company operated the icehouse, which was owned by the Reid Ice Cream Corp. Reid was a major player in the ice cream business in the New York City, Long Island and New Jersey markets.  Besides making ice cream they also operated Reid’s Union Dairy.  

Mountain Lakes Ice House circa 1904.

On June 8, 1907 tragedy struck, when Reid’s icehouse was destroyed by fire.  At 7:30 AM, with 8 men at work, it was discovered that the roof of the building was on fire.  The Mombasha Fire Co. responded to the alarm, but it was too late; the whole building was engulfed in flames when they arrived.  It is not known what caused the fire, but at the time it was thought that a spark from a passing locomotive most likely landed on the roof.  Twenty-five tons of ice were in storage at the time of the fire.


Work commenced shortly after the fire to replace the icehouse.  It was reported that Reid would have two elevators installed in their building, and that they were shipping two train cars of ice to New York daily.  The report continued that additional rooms would be constructed, due to the demand for ice in New York City.

A cold steady deep freeze provided clear, dense ice, but a thaw and a rainstorm could ruin the crop.  Ice harvesting usually took place in January or February, depending on the condition of ice crop.  If the weather did not provide a sufficient crop, ice had to be imported from icehouses in New York State or Pennsylvania with locations on the Erie Railroad so transportation would be direct to Monroe and the costs could be kept under control.

In mid-January 1909, the ice was 9 inches thick when the harvesting began.  Frank N. Reed, who owned the local ice cream company, gathered his ice and stored it in his building on the Mill Pond.  George R. Brooks, who supplied ice to the local people and businesses, reported that he had 35 men working and would be housing 20,000 tons of ice.  Egbert Mosher, as the manager of the Alexander Creamery, went into competition against Mr. Brooks when he bought ice from the Mt. Lakes Ice. Corp. to sell in Monroe and vicinity.

It appears that the Mill Pond did not supply the Reid Ice Cream Corp. with enough ice in January, because it was reported that in February they received eight cars of ice from Sullivan County and expected an additional 100 cars of ice in the future. In addition, Beakes and Alexander Campbell creameries imported thirty carloads of ice from Susquehanna, Pa.  This ice was of excellent quality, 16 to 18 inches thick.  George W. Brooks, the village iceman, had the contract to transfer the ice from the railroad cars to the creameries.

Louie Boccarelli and his ice truck circa 1941.

By the end of December 1909, however, they had good news: the ice on the ponds had frozen early, with the Mountain Lake Ice Company reporting that they expected to gather 30,000 tons of ice that season.  By early January 1910 the harvest was well under way and they expected the harvest to take an additional 3 weeks to fill the five mammoth rooms in the icehouse, using 50 men for the job.

In February 1913, the Mountain Lake Ice Co. hired 80 men to work in two shifts for the gathering of ice because of the lateness of the season.  They did this work with the use of electric lights, for which they had contractor E. D. Brady to do wiring around the pond and icehouses in two days.  This allowed the night crew to accomplish as much as the day crew in the harvesting of the ice.

The creameries around Monroe pond were all closed prior to 1920.  The first to go was the Monroe Dairy Association that was purchased by the Alexander Campbell Milk Co. in 1901.  The Beakes  Creamery closed in 1916, when it could no longer compete against the Monroe Cheese Co. for milk. Then the Alexander Campbell shut down its Monroe plant shortly after Beakes for the same reason.  The Borden Co. purchased the Alexander Campbell Milk Co. in 1918.

The value of the asset holdings of the natural ice industry at the start of the 1920s’ was in 9th place of all industries in the Untied States at that time.   But it quickly declined, as mechanical refrigeration came into use to manufacture ice and refrigerators started to take over in the kitchen. 

Reports in the local paper showed that the Mountain Lakes Ice Co. was still harvesting ice on their pond in February 1923, and had 70-80 men working on that harvest, expecting to store 16,000 tons of ice.  In June 1938 the Reid Ice Cream Corp. sold this property to Samuel Brenner of the Bronx.  The property remained in the Brenner family for many years, until the death of Samuel’s son Milton, when the estate sold the property to a group from Kiryas Joel.

As for the local ice business, it continued to be operated by the Brooks Brothers. George Brooks continued to harvest ice from his ice pond that once stood next to Route 17M.  Mr. Brooks also harvested his ice from Round Lake. Louis Boccarelli came to Monroe to work for the Brooks in 1935, or near then.  Eventually, Louis purchased the business and continued to deliver ice to homes and local businesses.  He also harvested ice from Walton Lake in the winter to be stored in the Ice House.  Louis continued to operate the business until 1949.  The ice pond was filled in a number of years ago to provide for future commercial development.

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