Ice Box

In the collection of the Hillsboro Historical Society's
Black Range Museum


A note inspired by this ice box (reprinted from the Hillsboro Historical
Society Newsletter of May 2018).

Put It On Ice

I once flew into Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada on the Beaufort Sea.  My pilot pointed out pingos as we flew from Inuvik to the edge of the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean.  Pingos are literally hills of solid ice and the locals dig tunnels into them to store produce, meats, and other things which need to be kept on ice.  Keeping things cold in that part of the world is not a big problem, in the Black Range in the late 1800’s, it was.

In the last issue, I wrote about Tom Ying’s first refrigerator.  It was a big deal.  But, how were things kept cold before that refrigerator came to town?  In an ice box, of course.  It so happens that just a few feet away from Ying’s refrigerator in the Black Range Museum stands the ice box pictured to the right.  It looks very similar to the refrigerator except that it is about half the size and the upper left compartment is empty - sans a Kelvinator refrigeration unit.

This fits with the information I found for the last article, that existing ice boxes were often retrofitted with refrigeration units when they became available.  Or, at the very least, they served as the model for some of the new refrigerators.

The upper left compartment is empty because that is where the block of ice went, and it melted long ago.  A block of ice could not keep a large area cold, so ice boxes tended to be smaller than the refrigerators which eventually replaced them.  Cold air flows downward so block ice was placed at, or near, the top of ice boxes.  The museum has another ice box.  It is a few feet away from the ice box pictured above and is a White Frost (shown to the right).  I show it here to demonstrate that not all ice boxes were “wood furniture” - but I will not dwell on the White Frost, it is from Texas.

History is a rabbit hole.  When you crawl down into it you often find that it is easier to continue than it is to back out.  I was half-way down the hole when I remembered last summer, the summer before that, etc.  The obvious question posed itself in front of me, down in that tunnel, “Where did the ice come from, bucko”?  Not something that jumps to mind in a world powered by electricity.  Based on my extensive experience, I surmised that there were no pingos here in the late 1800’s.  Harley Shaw, the editor of this newsletter, verified that fact for me - with an odd sideways look of the eye.

There was technology to make artificial ice by this time.  In fact, the French had shipped their ice-making equipment, based on an ammonia-and-water absorption process, to the Confederates when the south was cut off from northern sources of ice.  But “artificial ice” was expensive and generally found only in the big cities, so where did the ice for this ice box come from?

Barb Lovell, stepped in to posit that the ice may have come from Kingston.  “Kingston?”  I said.  “Kingston!” She said.  Seems that Kingston had an ice house (pictured above) where water from Percha Creek was funneled into a a standing pool and harvested when it froze to ice.  She went to the archives of the Kingston School Museum (which she curates) and found the photo above.  The ice house is long gone, the victim of fire, flood, or the recycling of wood.  Its approximate location was not far west of Kingston, about a hundred feet beyond the first stream ford of the Middle Percha.

The ice harvesting photo did not get me out of the rabbit hole, though.  I thought that ice shown in the photo would not be good for more than a month before it melted, and the summers are long.  

Frozen pond water can be much more dense than the stuff which comes from our ice cube trays (anyone still have ice cube trays?).  It is this fact that Frederic Tudor relied on to ship ice all around the world in the mid-1800’s - that and sawdust.  Sawdust turned out to be a great insulator.  Thick blocks of ice packed tightly and insulated with sawdust could remain unmelted for a long time - long enough to ship ice from Boston to Calcutta. 

I was in search of something a bit more on point, however.  How long could ice in sawdust last?  I discussed my concern with Gary Gritzbaugh when we ran into each other at the Hillsboro Post Office.  He remembered that his grandfather told of how he stored ice for his store and ice cream parlor.  The ice was cut from the river near their home in Kirkland, Illinois and packed in blocks with saw dust as an insulator.  The ice was used to make ice cream all summer.  (This in about 1910).

Kingston had sawdust, Kingston had ice.  Ice houses were fairly common structures prior to refrigeration.  Not the type of ice house pictured above but the kind used to store ice.  They were usually thick walled, often sunk into the ground, and generally located in shaded areas.  Block ice stored with sawdust in these conditions could last from the last freeze of the year to the first freeze of the next.

Not as easy as using an ice dispenser, but it worked.

The harvesting of ice, the methods of storing it, and its use in ice boxes are all well known and answer the question of how ice from Kingston may have been used in an ice box sitting in the Black Range Museum.  Like many things, however, the mundane are not often documented.  Does anyone know of ice (storage) houses in this area?  Does anyone know of a business which dealt in ice?  Not a simple rabbit hole, I say, but a bona fide warren.


© Robert Barnes 2018