NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Shafer Cold Storage at Mabee

This illustration from the 1878 History of Niagara County shows the Shafer homestead and Shafer Cold Storage building on the Erie Canal, at the hamlet of Mabee in Royalton.

A recent inquiry about the Shafer Cold Storage Company brought the opportunity to learn more about a Royalton business that played an important part in the preservation of produce in the days before refrigeration.

A Philadelphia area man, Nathan Hellings, invented a method for constructing a cold storage house that he first built in 1867 in Bristol, Pa., and later applied to the Shafer Cold Storage Building in Royalton. Hellings was a produce dealer who bought apples and other fruit from John W. Shafer, who, in 1870, had an orchard in the hamlet of Mabee (about halfway between Gasport and Reynale’s Basin) on the Erie Canal. Shafer, originally from Rhinebeck, Dutchess County, came to Niagara County in 1852, first settling at Johnson’s Creek in the town of Hartland before moving to Reynale’s Basin in 1858. In both places, he worked as a merchant. By 1870, he was at Mabee as a commercial fruit broker. It was at this time that he and Hellings began a business connection that would eventually become a family relationship as well.

Hellings’ original cold storage building in Bristol was considered the first of its kind in the United States. His design called for the ice to be stored above the main floor rather than in it or below it. The upper floor that held ice 13 feet high, covered in sawdust, was slightly inclined, allowing drainage pipes to catch any water. But moisture was not major problem since the building was so well insulated and the temperature was kept as close to 36 degrees Fahrenheit as possible. People who entered the building remarked how dry it was compared to root cellars in which fruit was usually stored. It was also pointed out that you could not smell the fruit when you walked inside, which meant the flavor was not escaping. It was estimated that this cold storage could hold up to 10,000 barrels containing 200 to 300 apples, depending on the size of the barrels and the size of the apples. Hellings’ Bristol, Pa., facility burned down in 1900, leaving the Shafer cold storage the oldest of these building for many years.

Although sources differ as to the exact size of the Shafer building, it was approximately 50-by-80 feet and about 30 feet high. Its limestone walls were 27 to 30 inches thick, with an internal insulation space of 12 inches filled with sawdust enclosed between two 6-inch-thick wood walls. Like the Bristol “fruit house,” as these were sometimes called, the ice was on the top floor of Shafer’s and the rooms below were for fruit storage. Also like the Bristol cold storage, Shafer’s top floor sloped to allow for drainage and had air ducts to circulate the cold air down to the lower levels. Ice was cut from the nearby Erie Canal and skids were used to haul and load the ice into the building.

An 1874 article in The Cultivator & Country Gentleman, a magazine devoted to farming and rural life, highlighted Nathan Hellings and his cold storage houses. Of the Shafer facility, it was stated that “we were struck with the fact that the room in which fruit is kept is very dry as well as cold … The room was fitted up like an ordinary fruit cellar … The only secret thing about it was the manner of using ice to keep the room cool, without the deposition of moisture.” In April, the fruit was moved out to send to produce dealers via the canal or the railroad, which also ran alongside the building.

About 15 years after their first association, Hellings and Shafer became relatives through the 1885 marriage of Shafer’s son, Charles, and Hellings’ daughter, Clara. The couple lived at Mabee, where the younger Shafer assisted his father with the cold storage business. The elder Shafer died in 1911 and Hellings died in 1912. Also in 1911, Charles Shafer purchased a 70-acre orchard in Darien, Genesee County, to increase his fruit inventory. He cultivated this for about 20 years and sold it in 1932. At about this same time (early 1930s), Shafer sold the cold storage to Milfred Bordwell, who continued the business until 1960. In 1966, the Randolph Seed Company bought the building but shortly afterward, the nearly 100-year-old structure was destroyed by fire on Jan. 18, 1967, leaving only the stone walls standing. The ruins were later taken down.

The old Shafer house, which was built in 1871 and was said to resemble Hellings’ house in Bristol, Pa., is still standing on Bolton Road near the intersection with Telegraph Road within sight of where the cold storage building was once located.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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