Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ice Houses and Old Farms

The trail we walked this past weekend went through an old Mennonite farm that has been operational for at least six generations. The most interesting feature for me was the old ice house. I remember Grandma describing the ice box in her kitchen on the 1920's and how she would buy ice in the summer, just like we now purchase ice for our coolers. I never really gave much thought as to where the ice she was talking about came from.

This ice house was built into the bank of Critter Creek, a perennial creek fed by groundwater that runs through the property and into the Grand River. In the winter, chunks of ice would be cut from the creek and river and dragged by sled into the ice house. Layers of straw would add extra insulation and the ice could last into the late summer, or perhaps even into the next winter.

How could a person get through the summer, or any time of year without a refrigerator? I have given thought to that since I saw this ice house. There are certain members of our household who consider ice cream to be an essential daily food group. When I return from grocery shopping the fridge is crammed full of items that cannot stay in the cupboard. Many people I know have two fridges as well as additional freezers.

One of my favourite childhood books was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. In one part of the story, Anne was beside herself with excitement because ice cream was going to be served at the church picnic. Imagine a twelve year old who had never eaten ice cream! Through a misunderstanding, she was grounded and denied this special treat, and her disappointment was almost too much to bear. The ice cream would have been prepared in a crank with ice from the previous winter.

I don't know if the Old Order Mennonites still use ice houses, especially those who live without electricity. I imagine they would use gas refrigerators. Many of them sell baked goods, meats and cheeses at our local markets, and it is unlikely the health department would allow unrefrigerated items like these to be sold to the public. I wouldn't want to use the ice from our local streams and rivers in my food due to contamination that is present from many sources.

On another note, this farm had a very old orchard with gnarled trees that were being pruned by the farmer. The deer had eaten a lot of bark in the winter from the lowest branches that touched the ground. I was reminded that our local bee hives have been affected by the mysterious bee colony collapse that has occurred across the continent. This is a small orchard, but like the big ones, it will be dependent on bees to pollinate the blossoms in a few weeks. Laura at Natural Notes wrote a recent post about the bee problem.

Do you have ice house or ice box memories or stories? Or have you lived for extended periods of time without a refrigerator?


  1. Interesting history of ice houses, Ruth. We don't realize how much we depend on ice and freezers until they are gone. Only during a hurricane in 1999 did we go without refrigeration for 7 days. We relied on restaurants that didn't lose power.

  2. A few years ago I read a book called "The Frozen Water Trade." It's about the history of ice-making and icehouses, and it's an excellent read.

  3. Ruth. This brought back stories that my mother, Ruth, told about the ice wagon pulling up in the alley beside their house to deliver ice. Think how far technology has brought us in less than a century. We are sooooo spoiled.

    Still, it makes me nostalgic for simpler times when I looked at the ice house pictures you posted.

    Our refrigerator 'died' a couple weeks ago. Red alert! Within less than a day they delivered and installed this miracle of refrigeration technology.
    Are you ready for this? The ice maker offers 'crushed' 'cubed' or 'quick'. My husband and I (in our 60's) haven't figured out what the 'quick' even means :0D

  4. I would imagine that most kids today would have no clue about ice houses.
    Of course, growing up in the mid 1950s in Africa, we had no electricity and no refrigerators. We used fresh produce, and preserved things by canning. I remember putting eggs in water to preserve them. I couldn't do any of that today, but we did it then.

  5. Mary- we were without power in the big blackout of 2004 (or was it 2003?)for a few day in the summer heat. We are nor equipped to cope without electricty!

    Bunnygirl- thanks for visiting! I will have to get the book. It looks really interesing.

    Cathy- Yes the changes in the last century are astounding. (So your mother's name was Ruth too.)
    Fancy fridge...quick ice. My teeth are too sensitive for ice cold drinks. I sometimes need quick ice for my aching, aging back!

    KGMom- I was asking my dad if they had electricity when they went to Africa in 1955. He said the mission stations did not have any, but we lived mostly in cities. Of course there were no ice options in rural Africa and many Africans still live without a fridge. While fridges keep food safer, we do fill them with a lot of unhealthy foods!

  6. I don't think I've ever seen an ice house like that. My dad's family had a potato cellar, and he can remember the ice man coming to put blocks of ice in the "icebox" but it was inside. It is a wonder how food did not continually spoil if not consumed quickly. Such interesting information Ruth!

  7. I've come across some fishing camps in Maine that pack blocks of ice in saw dust.They keep it in little homemade cellars dug in to the ground.They get the ice by cutting chunks off the lakes with a chain saw.
    Those trees are eerie looking.

  8. Jayne- My father-in-law used to tell us about the root cellar, a dirt floor where potatoes and other root vegetables were kept in the winter. You couldn't keep many leftovers without refrigeration.

    Larry- Wow, those fishing camps still do things areally old fashioned way. I thought it was neat to see an ice house without ice. How interesting it would be to see one with ice.

  9. Anonymous9:05 am GMT-4

    Very nice post, interesting to see the ice house.

    Some Amish get ice delivered but a lot are using the gas-powered appliances now.

  10. Erik- I was surprised with the chart you posted about the use of technology among the various Amish groups. It seemed to me they were more likely to have a washing machine than a fridge. (I wouldn't want to choose between those 2 appliances!)

  11. Anonymous2:39 pm GMT-4

    yeah that's a good point, I wouldn't want to choose either.

    I was trying to figure out what the chart meant by 'mechanical refrigerator' and I suppose that's the gas-powered kind. I was looking at the settlements that I've been to on that chart and I do remember the Geauga County people seemed to be the ones that got ice delivered so I'm guessing they're probably using an ice-box type fridge there.

    That's a pretty big settlement and I wonder if by now some don't use the gas-powered. But I also wonder if there is another way to power a fridge, as some a couple of these have restrictions against propane gas yet still allow mechanical fridges (Renno Group and Somerset Co.--PA)

    honestly don't know but you've got me wondering. I just need to ask


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