Where My Research Took Me – Ice Houses In The Nineteenth Century

I first learned about ice houses at my grandparents resort on Red Lake in Ontario, Canada when I was around six or seven years old. Even in the 1950s a few ice houses were still used in remote areas like this one. Hard to believe, but true. The pictures below are very old, probably, 60 to 70 years old and are old black and white photos but I think they will help with the understanding of ice houses and ice harvesting.

Ice House with convenor of ice from the channel to the house.

While Writing my current book in progress, How To Kiss A Troll I mentioned the Bjornson’s ice house and was remembered of my grandparent’s ice house. That’s how this blog was born.

The ice was floated to the Ontario resort ice house much like what is described below. My grandparents kept the fish caught by vacationing customers in the ice house. The fish was packed in chipped ice within boxes

and then those boxes were kept in the ice house. Sometimes hunters kept their venison and bear meat in this ice house, too. In the this old black and white picture my grandmother stands in the forefront  and you’ll see the conveyor that carries the ice cakes from the channel that led from the lake.


Grandpa LeGore in the forefront. Men with huge ice hooks in the background.

Ice Harvesting:

Prior to the 1800s there is little recorded about harvesting ice but even the ancients tried their hand at keeping food fresh by keeping it cold.

In the late 1700s and 1800s farmers harvested ice for their own use, storing meat and dairy foods.

Harvesting ice was cold, hard, wet work. At times, it was dangerous too. Once the first piece of ice was cut, a man could easily fall into the freezing water and drown. And in the process of storing the ice, a man could be crushed by a falling cake of ice. We have to appreciate what farmers and ice companies went through just to preserve their foods and have little ice tea in the summer.

How thick the ice had to be before it could be cut in a river or pond varied from one place to another. The thickness might be as deep as 20 to 30 inches or as little as 6 inches. A hole was drilled into the ice and a measuring pole was inserted into the ice to test how thick it was.

At first, ice cutting was a rural affair that took place each year after Christmas in January or February. Farmers took their teams and flat sleighs to a lake or pond and cut a hole large enough to accommodate a wooden chute. Using one-handled crosscut saws, men cut ice blocks weighing about 300 pounds. Then using picks or rigging towed by a horse, they pulled the blocks up a chute to their flat low-to-the-ground sleighs.

Teamsters hauled the ice to the farms where a group of neighbors unloaded it into an ice house. This was repeated many times during the day.

A thick layer of sawdust or salt hay was layered on the floor of the icehouse before the ice arrived. The ice blocks were pushed up a plank into the house and layered inside with a thick layer of sawdust dust that kept the cakes separated when taken out during the summer. About a foot of sawdust or hay was used between the ice and the walls of the ice house for insulation. After the house was filled, a layer of sawdust or hay was spread on the top layer as well.

Below is a picture of my grandfather Roy Le Gore standing by the ice channel used to float the ice to the conveyor that led to the ice house.

In Cites:

Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth of Boston is credited with developing large scale ice harvesting starting around 1825. Due to his inventions ice could be harvested and shipped internationally.

The snow on a pond or river where ice was harvested had to be scraped of snow until ice harvesting time, which meant it was cleared many times during the winter. Plows pulled by horses piled the snow along the shoreline in snow dumps.

When the field of ice to be harvested was chosen, the field was lined off into squares. Sometimes the ice blocks measured 22′ x 22′, sometimes 22′ x 32′ as in New York.

Next came the ice plow which cut the ice about two-thirds the depth of the ice. Hand tools were used to detach the blocks so they could be floated through a channel that has been cut for that purpose to the ice houses located close to the shoreline. Hand tools consisted of steel saws and sometimes a bar or chisel as well as grapple hooks.

Sometimes horses guided the ice cakes downstream and sometimes a man or men on shore used poles to guild the floating ice to the ice house. [There are many pictures of these steps in the book, America’s Icemen. Pictures of the hand tools and plows are also available.]

Large ice house companies built elevators powered by steam to move the ice out of the water and up into the ice houses. Inside the house, the ice slide down shoots to the ice house floor. Men at the bottom using pole-hooks arranged them until the floor was covered. Several tiers of ice were made until the house was full. Lots of details, too many to list here, happen during this process in and out of the water, but this is basically how it was done. [Find more information from the provided links and books.]

Ice companies used large forces of men, sometimes as many as 100 to accomplish the ice harvesting.

I was surprised to learn that railroad cars could be loaded with ice destined for inland cities.

Ice Houses:

Ice houses were first built below ground. These were usually personal ice houses on farms.

There were little to no commercial ice houses prior to 1800. Frederick Tudor of Boston became known as the Ice King after succeeding in large domestic and export markets of ice.

Ice was being commercially cut on the Hudson River at Athens, New York in 1847 and by 1880 there were 160 large commercial ice houses along the Hudson.

Neighborhood Deliveries:

Horse drawn enclosed wagons delivered ice to customers’ homes all summer. Ice companies had ice routes in towns like the milkman. Most had scales on the wagons to weigh the ice. Some just guessed. It was up to the housewife to get a chunk of ice from her kitchen’s back door into her ice box. Ice deliveries were a mess on her floors and a big complaint.

Home Ice Boxes and Refrigerators:

In homes ice was kept in ice boxes and only lasted about two days. I found around 42 ice box manufacturers listed from the 1800s. A brand by D. Eddy & Son of Boston was the oldest and said to be the best quality. The ice box became outdated in the early 1900s by electric refrigerators. In 1913 the Domestic Electric Refrigerator was marketed in Chicago.

The historical story of ice boxes and refrigerators is another topic and too long to go into here. However, here are a few interesting facts.

From: Domestic Technology A Chronology of Developments by Nell Du Vall – This book is now very pricey. I feel lucky that I’ve had mine for years. I have seen used copies and if you write historicals or just plain love history, this book is a must have.

*Most domestic-use refrigerators didn’t come into use until the beginning of the 20th century.

*1899 Albert T. Marshall received a patent in 1899

*1918 The Kelvinator – I heard my grandmothers mention this one

*1919 Frigidaire

* 1931 Freon was introduced

*1939 General Electric introduced a dual temperature refrigerator for frozen foods and foods to be kept for limited time.

I hope you enjoyed this brief look at ice houses, ice harvesting and refrigeration. Below is a list of resources with more information.



The Ice Industry of the United States (1888) by Henry Hall– excellent book

America’s Icemen, An illustarative History of the United States Natural Ice Industry 1665-1925 by Joseph C. Jones Jr. – I own a hardcover of this book but it’s become pricy. However there is paperback version fro around $16.00.

Tidewater Ice of the Kennebec River by Jennie G. Everson

Domestic Technology A Chronology of Developments by Nell Du Vall


Ice House facts and history

Ice Harvesting in the 19th Century – Good site

Ice History – excellent sight with pictures and info on tools etc.

The Story of Ice Before Home Freezers




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7 Responses to Where My Research Took Me – Ice Houses In The Nineteenth Century

  1. Lynda Jensen says:

    Fascinating post, Sharla! I knew ice was cut from frozen lakes or rivers in the old days but I never thought about how much work was required to transport the ice cakes. Thanks for sharing your great research!

  2. I enjoyed this topic. It’s one I would have had to stop and research if I were writing a book that needed and ice house. Thanks for the links. Your research and topics are always top notch.

    • sharla says:

      Thanks Darleen and Lynda. My mother just sent me some old black and white photos of the small operation at the Canada Resort. I so pleased to see them!

  3. Lynda Jensen says:

    Shar, I saw the one you posted on Facebook. Very cool!

    • sharla says:

      Thanks Lyn. I received the pictures from my mother after I’d posted the blog so I added them. Since I have an ice house in my next book, I thought it would be fun to write about them and how the ice was harvested. I told my mother and sent the pictures! I was glad to receive them because I don’t like using pictures off the internet. I’d have to get permissions and then even those are usually only granted for a limited time. This is way better. 🙂

  4. Lynda Jensen says:

    I know what you mean about pictures off the net. I prefer using my own pics or purchase them from dreamstime.com. It’s safer.

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