Friday, March 26, 2021

Ice Houses

by Cindy Regnier

Have you ever heard of an ice house? Not an ice hotel, not an igloo, not even a snow fort. An ice house is what folks used to store ice before electricity and refrigerators. It was common for most rural folks in northern climates to have an ice house, especially if they lived near a source of winter ice such as a pond or lake.

Simply put, they would harvest ice in the winter, pack it away in their ice houses and have ice available well into the summer, or perhaps even until the next winter. Ice houses (also known as ice wells, ice pits or ice mounds) were often located partially or completely underground to aid in keeping the ice frozen. It was usually insulated against melting with straw or sawdust. 

The folks who maintained ice houses didn’t usually go chip off a few pieces to cool a summertime drink. Instead the ice they harvested was most commonly used for the storage of perishable foods (ever heard of an icebox?) or, of course, making ice cream!

Part of the economy of the early New England states was the ice trade. Ice was transported from there in straw-packed ships to the southern states and throughout the Caribbean Sea. Ice was often chopped and placed into iceboxes that were used similarly to today’s refrigerators. When refrigeration became more common, ice houses generally disappeared, but not in all places or not completely. In Texas, for instance, ice merchants also sold groceries and cold drinks, functioning much as a modern day convenience store as well as a local gathering place. In time, they converted into full convenience stores. For instance, you've heard of 7-11. The original store chain developed from ice houses that were owned by the Southland ice manufacturing company in Dallas and San Antonio in the 1930s. They were first known as Tote'm stores.

Iceboxes appeared in English and American homes with the ice trade in the nineteenth century. They were wooden boxes insulated with sawdust, cork, or even seaweed and lined with tin, zinc, or another non corroding metal. Ice for the iceboxes was delivered once or twice a week, or an owner of the icebox could pick up a block of ice from an ice-house and fill it himself. 

The process of ice harvesting looked somewhat similar to crop harvesting, with horses pulling plow-like ice cutters across frozen lakes and ponds. 
Before ice could be cut, snow had to be cleared from the surface.


Laura Ingalls Wilder referred to the Wilder family’s ice house in her book Farmer Boy.The Wilders’ ice-house was “built of boards with wide cracks between. It was set high from the ground on wooden blocks, and looked like a big cage.” (Farmer Boy, Chapter 6, “Filling the Ice-House”) According to Laura, it took three days to fill. For the Wilders, ice was both plentiful and in close proximity. It cost only time and the wages paid to French Joe and Lazy John to harvest it.

So how about it? Would you like to go back to the days of ice houses and ice boxes? I think I’d prefer just opening the freezer door. My, but aren’t we spoiled? Still, it would have really made one appreciate that summertime bowl of ice cream!

Rand Stafford isn't looking for true love. He'd ridden that trail until his fiancée left him with a shattered heart. What he needs now is a wife to help him care for his orphan nieces. Desperate, he sends an advertisement to a Baltimore newspaper and hopes for the best.

Fleeing her former employer who would use her to further his unlawful acts, a newspaper advertisement reads like the perfect refuge to Carly Blair. The idea of escaping the city, the intrigue, and the danger to hide herself on a cattle ranch in Kansas is her best shot for freedom.

But its sanctuary comes with a price—a husband. While marrying a man she doesn't know or love means sacrificing her dreams, it's better than being caught by the law.

Or is it?


  1. Thanks for the post! I think the Amish still harvest ice, I'm not sure they depend on it though. Another research topic?

  2. Great post, Cindy, and so timely for me. I was just researching ice houses last week (for a project I'm working on). Your post was helpful and interesting. Thank you!

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