The author is a local freelance writer and current news editor of UpstateLIVE.com. This is part one of his article about the impact of climate change on our region. Part two will run in the June 25 editions of Spotlight Newspapers.
For several decades leading into the 20th century, German immigrant Valentine Pappalau oversaw his family’s ice harvesting business from just outside Albany, New York, cutting natural ice out of the Normans Kill and Hudson River. He was a local pioneer to an industry that introduced luxuries such as ice cream, as well as providing innovative means of food storage to a newly expanding middle class.
Pappalau lived within the Gilded Age, a time many economists agree created consumerism — when the working middle class began bringing home more income, allowing families to not only spend on needs, but luxury items as well. It was the dawn of the material world.
By 1910, the ice harvesting business was at its peak. It is estimated that 134 ice houses were present throughout New York’s Hudson Valley. One such competitor of Pappalau was Schifferdicker’s, whose ice house was located on the western shores of the river several miles south of Albany, within the Town of Bethlehem.
“In the summer, ice barges would come up river from New York City,” wrote G.B. Schifferdicker. His grandfather started the family ice business in the 1880s. “These barges were quite large as I remember; about 25 feet by 60 to 70 feet, and about seven-feet deep. The stored ice was… loaded into the barges and sent on its way.
“Of course ice cutting depended mainly on cold weather,” wrote Mr. Schifferdicker, “usually mid-December and January. The lightest ice my father would take was 10 inches thick.”
By the time Pappalau died in 1919, his aggregate worth was equivalent to three-quarters of a million dollars in today’s economy. News of his death carried on the front page of Albany newspapers — as was the subsequent fight over his estate.
With the popularity of home refrigeration units starting in the 1930s, thanks in large part to General Electric in the neighboring city of Schenectady, the industry that sustained Pappalau’s and Schifferdicker’s family businesses disappeared.
Technology makes promises for a better future. But, as the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” have seeped into everyday discussion, people are starting to question what may be attached to the luxuries guaranteed by those advances.
In his book “Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The Path to Sustainability”, Jerry Jenkins documents the observed changes to the winters in Upstate New York, and speculates how those changes effect the local economy.
Jenkins, an ecologist by profession, identifies several different businesses dependent upon Adirondack winters – tourism, skiing, ice fishing, ice climbing; which, in turn, precipitates towards lodging, restaurants and local retail stores.
“If the winter season becomes short or unreliable,” states Jenkins, “there will be fewer users and events. Without the users and events, the facilities will be abandoned, the service businesses will close…”
Though, Jenkins states that the Adirondacks have not experienced such winters, he looks to Western Massachusetts that has witnessed “increasingly brown winters” that have depleted winter-themed business. He suggests, through collected data, that Upstate New York is following a similar fate.
The ice houses of Pappalau and Schifferdicker have long since succumbed to the withering of time. In the hallow of Normans Kill, which also serves as a boundary between the City of Albany and Town of Bethlehem, lies the stone foundation of Pappalau’s ice house. It’s here where summer revelers once laid upon the sandy beaches that abutted the tricking creek, and the Pappalau’s served the rare treat of ice cream. Now, it stands in conformity with the ghosts of a once bustling tourist spot. As Mr. Schifferdicker’s memory served him, the winters of today would not support the ice harvesting business.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.