Monday, February 23, 2009


At the request of a fourth grade teacher, I dashed this off one morning in April, 2001 to tell her class about ice houses:

I grew up on a farm in the Helderberg Mountains of western Albany County some 60 years ago. Although I am not that old, still, when I was a boy we had an ice house. The ice was harvested from nearby Warners Lake. The lake froze over every winter, and when the ice was a couple of feet thick a group of farmers would gather and use long saws with wide teeth to cut blocks of ice roughly one-and-a-half feet by one-and-a-half feet. They used large tongs to pick up the ice and put it on an sledge. The sledge was like a low slung sled with real thick, dull blades instead of wheels. Horses were used to drag the ice laden sledge across the ice, up on to the lake shore, and along the snow covered roads to home.

Our ice house was the size of a garage but a bit higher then the average garage. The only "door" was a two foot wide opening that went from the ground to the roof. The ice was stacked tight in layers, with a foot or so of sawdust put all around the sides of the pile of ice to act as insulation between the walls of the building and the ice. As the level of ice rose, boards were put horizontally across the door opening from the inside; then sawdust was put between the boards and the ice to keep them in place without nails. There was a ladder built up along side the door opening on the outside of the building for access to the top of the ice. The top layer of ice was covered with a foot or more of sawdust.

Where did we get so much sawdust? Well, our large old farm house was heated with three wood stoves, including the one in the kitchen that my mother cooked on. The wood was from trees my father cut each fall in our wood lot. In those days the trees were cut with a crosscut saw. It was a wide blade saw about five feet long. My father would be on one end of the saw and a hired man would be on the other. They pulled it back and forth between them. The logs were so big it was all two men could do to pick them up and put them on a low sledge. If they were too big, they had to be levered onto the sledge using a long bar of iron for leverage; or chains were wrapped around them and a horse pulled them onto the sledge. The sledge was pulled in the early days by horses, but later by a tractor. The sledge could be pulled over both bare ground or snow. The logs were stacked in the backyard to dry. The smaller branches, which would have been about ten feet long, were stacked vertically like an Indian tee-pee so that air could get in and dry the wood. When the wood was dry enough to burn, the logs were cut into smaller pieces by what we called a "buzz" saw. It was like a large outdoor table saw, and was powered by a tractor. The tractor, which was parked near the saw, had a pulley wheel that turned when the engine was running. The belt, which was like a fan belt used in a car, was about thirty feet long and a foot or so wide. While one end was around the pulley wheel on the tractor, the other was around a pulley wheel on the saw. When the tractor engine was running, the belt went around, turning the saw. The turning of the saw made a buzzing sound, which was why it was called a buzz saw. There was one man on each end of a log, and they moved it against the saw. The sound changed to a loud, high-pitched squeal as the log was cut in two. With all of the noise the old tractors used to make, plus the noise of the saw biting into the wood, it was an awful racket!!

The foot long logs were thrown into a pile. Later we had to split the wood with an ax so the pieces would be small enough to fit in the stove. Then my brother and I had to stack them in the woodhouse that was attached to the back of our house. The wood house was about the size of a garage, and by the time the snows came, it was packed to the ceiling, back to front. Each morning and night my brother and I had to fill the wood boxes in the house next to each stove.

In the summer, to get the ice from the ice house, a hole would have to be dug in the sawdust and the tongs used to get a block of ice out. Then the saw dust was put back to cover the remaining ice. Neither my brother nor I could lift the heavy blocks of ice so we used the tongs to pull the ice along the ground to the house. As the ice house was gradually emptied, the extra sawdust was thrown out the narrow opening in front into a pile below. My brother and I used to love to climb up into the ice house and jump out the opening onto the sawdust pile below.

Instead of a refrigerator we had an wooden icebox to keep food cold. It was kept inside the wood house, just outside the kitchen door. It looked like a wooden refrigerator with two doors. The bottom door was for the ice and the other gave access to the food storage area. The ice sat on a metal drain that allowed the melt water to collect in a metal tray beneath the ice. This had to be emptied often as the ice melted.

On hot summer days the ice was also used to make homemade ice-cream. The ice was crushed and mixed with salt to lower the temperature at which it froze. This made it cooler so it would freeze the cream faster. The ice was put in a wooden ice cream churner. In the center was a metal container with the cream and fresh strawberries or peaches. There was a beater that had to be turned with a handle to mix the cream until it got cold enough to start to firm up. Of course that was the job of the kids. Our reward was being allowed to lick the ice cream off of the beater.