Featured Destination: Hanford Mills Museum

The Hanford family purchased the mill in East Meredith, Delaware County, in the 1860s, and developed the site into a vast rural complex. The mill, in existence since 1846, is one of the very few remaining 19th century original mills, and it’s listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

The museum, open from mid-May to mid-October and on special occasions, can be visited with tour guides, willing to demonstrate some of the machinery on display, such as waterwheels, sawmills, and woodworking tools. There are sixteen buildings on the site, and around 50,000 objects and exhibits hosted in twelve buildings. Exhibits include domestic tools and artifacts, historic photographs, and library and archival papers that document the history of the site.

In addition to themed workshops and lectures, the museum also hosts several festivals a year, including the Ice Harvest Festival, which takes place the first Saturday in February. During the Ice Harvest Festival visitors, who ride in horse-drawn sleighs, can help with the removal of big blocks of ice from a frozen mill pond. Ice cleats are being lent to those willing to walk on the frozen pond. Skilled ice carvers using antique tools remove the ice that is then being kept in an ice house similar to those used before refrigeration. The ice is used to make ice cream on the Independence Day in July. This year the Ice Harvest Festival takes place Saturday, February 7 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Contributed photo.
Contributed photo.

I interviewed Liz Callahan, the museum’s executive director.

Simona David: Liz, talk a little bit about Hanford Mills Museum – its history, mission, and programs.

Liz Callahan: The museum is located in East Meredith, Delaware County, between Oneonta and Stamford along County Route 10. East Meredith grew as a rural, agricultural community, in and around the mill. The mill business was very important to the community in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Hanford Mills operated as a business from the 1840s to the 1960s. It became a museum in 1973 chartered by the New York State. The community has not changed a great deal since. We preserve and interpret this vast rural complex, which extends over seventy acres.

SD: What historic buildings and objects do you have on site?

LC: On ten acres we have about fifteen buildings that have always been part of this site. In addition to the mill buildings, we have several other buildings including the building where the tools were stored, the building where the lumber was stored, a horse barn, a hardware store, and one of the two original dairy barns. We also have the Hanford House, in its original condition. The Hanford House was built in 1910. Hanford Mills Museum is significant because it represents the mill complex in its interaction with commerce, the local economy, and the rural social life. This interaction existed in all rural communities around us.

SD: Let’s talk a little bit about the Hanford House. Is it open to the public?

LC: The Hanford House is open to the public. It was re-created as it would have appeared in the 1910s with many pieces that belonged to the Hanford family. The house has wallpaper that reflects the wallpaper of that period. The kitchen was restored, and brought back to its original condition. From the parlor to the dining-room to the kitchen and the bedrooms we have lots of authentic aspects of the Hanford family life, and also great diary entries and journal information about the activities of the residents. We use the Hanford House to talk about the social life and leisure time pursuits, as well as the food ways pertaining to that period of time. We actually use the kitchen to make treats following the Hanford family’s recipes that we have in our archives.

Contributed photo.
Contributed photo.

SD: The museum is ordinarily open from May to October. What activities do take place at the museum during the summer?

LC: The machines are powered by the water. We have a water wheel operating since 1926. We also have a water turbine, and a massive steamed power plant, re-created based on the original drawings. We talk about the power of water in all forms – liquid, through the water wheel and turbine, gas through the steamed power plant, and solid through the ice harvesting activities. We power the machines with water, and demonstrate all these activities. We generate power for over twenty machines at the mill.

SD: Every year the first Saturday in February you host an Ice Harvest Festival which is becoming increasingly popular – just recently the Wall Street Journal listed the festival among top five winter festivals to attend in 2015, along with major events like Carnaval de Québec in Canada, and the Rondy in Alaska. When did this tradition start, and what triggered it?

LC: We started the Ice Harvest Festival in 1989. We’re doing it in a traditional way – just as it was done in the late 1800s, early 1900s. We recreate this historic activity using historic tools and gear, and invite visitors to participate. We harvest 8 to 10 tons of ice from a frozen mill pond. Each block of ice weighs 50 to 60 pounds. We have many volunteers and staff on site to help. We’ve been doing this consistently for the past twenty-five years the first Saturday in February. There were a few years when we didn’t have enough ice – we called it “ice famine.” This year we anticipate the ice will be 18 inches thick. It’s an abundant year.

Contributed photo.
Contributed photo.

SD: Let’s talk about the tradition of ice harvesting, and the significance of the ice house in communities prior to the invention of refrigeration in the early 1900s.

LC: Ice harvesting was very important to farmers – the ice kept in the ice house could last up to six months, and help preserve farm and dairy products. Ice was harvested for personal consumption, but was also sold to the market.

SD: Let’s talk specifically about the Ice Harvest Festival this Saturday, February 7. What activities will occur that day?

LC: Today ice harvesting is a great learning experience. But we’re also trying to make it playful. Visitors are given a pair of ice cleats to walk on the frozen mill pond. They are shown how to use the historic ice harvesting tools, and cut blocks of ice. We have large horse-drawn sleighs to carry the ice to the ice house. The staff will load the ice into the ice house, and pile it to the top. The ice house is traditionally designed, and has proper ventilation, insulation and drainage to maintain the ice for at least six months. In addition to ice harvesting, we also added other activities that relate to ice and winter sports, such as ice fishing and ice sculpture.

Contributed photo.
Contributed photo.

SD: What other activities will take place at the museum this Saturday?

LC: Other activities include traditional parlor games, ice harvesting movies, blacksmith demonstrations, and a hot soup buffet.

SD: Do you plan anything new for this summer when the museum re-opens?

LC: This summer we’re planning an event that celebrates local community, ingenuity and innovation. The event will take place on May 30, when we re-open. More details will be revealed soon. Also, Independence Day is a big event. That’s when we make ice cream with ice harvested during the Ice Harvest Festival in February.

SD: Is there anything else you would like to share?  

LC: Yes. The museum also has a YouTube Channel where visitors can go and see ice harvesting demonstrations and other activities that we have at the museum.

Hanford Mills Museum is located at 51 County Highway 12 in East Meredith, Delaware County, New York. For more information, visit http://www.hanfordmills.org or call (607) 278-5744.

Contributed photo.
Contributed photo.

© 2015 Simona David

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