How it Works: An Ice House

Here’s a little trivia for you: According to a 1928 U.S. Department of Agriculture pamphlet, it takes nearly two tons of ice per cow per year to cool milk on a dairy farm.

So you can see why ice was big business back in those pre-Frigidaire days. In fact, you could have made a fortune harvesting and shipping ice in straw-packed ships to southern states or even to the Caribbean.

Here on the Vineyard, ice was harvested from places like Crystal Lake in East Chop and Old House Pond (also known as Ice House Pond) in West Tisbury well into the twentieth century, though mostly for local consumption. Primarily the ice was used to keep foods cool. Not only was it too precious to be crushed into slushies, it wasn’t always particularly pure.

In Vineyard Voices by Linsey Lee (Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, 1998), Franklin Benson of West Tisbury recalls that Crystal Lake produced “not the best of ice” – it tended to be brackish. The ice from Old House Pond, however, was very clean and Benson worked there at an ice house owned by Harry Peakes.

The first rule of ice “farming” is to keep the pond shoveled, because if snow stays on the ice, it results in soft ice. The ice must be at least a foot to fifteen or eighteen inches thick before it can be harvested.

The equipment and techniques used to cut ice varied. Benson describes a machine at Old House Pond mounted on a ten- or fifteen-foot-long sled that cut the ice with a thirty-six-inch saw blade and was powered by a Model T engine. A rotating notched gear would grab the ice and drive the sled. On Crystal Lake, Joe Nunes of Oak Bluffs recalls in Vineyard Voices how a sled was drawn by horses.

Benson explains that the blade on the sled was used to carve a giant grid into the pond, but it would stop about two inches short of cutting entirely through – “Enough to hold the machine up and so you could walk over it.” The final cuts were made by hand. A “runway with a chain, on gears” was used to transport the blocks up into the ice house.

What kept cut ice frozen was its sheer bulk: The more that it could be tightly packed together, the longer it would stay cold. In addition, hay or sawdust was laid between layers and packed around the ice as insulation.

A first-class ice house would have double outer walls separated by sawdust or straw insulation, a roof opening to vent heat, and a way to drain water from the floor. In the case of the Old House ice house, there was no floor – the blocks were stacked on bare ground – and by summer you could expect about three tiers to have melted.

Depending on the severity of the winter, you might get more than one ice harvest from a pond. And while there was nothing hard and fast about exactly how long you could keep working on the ice, Benson had a rather sensible rule of thumb:

“Generally you’d cut until someone fell in.”