Did your parents call the family fridge an “icebox” when you were growing up? If you’re a Baby Boomer, they probably did, because it really was one back when they were kids. Their generation was the last to use iceboxes, and the last to know firsthand the people and processes that supplied the ice inside.
Humans have preserved their food with ice for thousands of years, but the harvesting, storage and distribution of natural ice reached its historical peak right here in the eastern United States during the 19th century. Democracy, geography, and industry gave birth to the new “Ice Age.” Ice in summer had been reserved for aristocracy since ancient times, but the American Revolution democratized its use and thus increased demand. Our north Atlantic seaboard had the right climate to produce harvestable ice in quantity, and the ports to ship it from. As for industry; well, we were that century’s keenest entrepreneurs: if there was a high demand for something, American traders would find a way to supply it.
The ice trade actually began as an export business, since most early 19th century Americans lived in rural areas where they could harvest their own ice. Boston’s Frederic Tudor first shipped ice to the Caribbean in 1806, and by 1840 had ice houses around the world. But the biggest consumers of all were America’s two largest (and hottest) cities: New York, which used more ice than most countries, and Philadelphia, which had the highest per-capita consumption of ice on the planet. Domestic ice sales overtook exports after the Civil War, and our expanding railroad network allowed long-distance transport of meat, produce and dairy products for the first time thanks to ice-cooled refrigerator cars.
By 1870, most Americans had stopped harvesting ice for themselves, happy to let commercial suppliers relieve them of the task. But in more remote areas like Indiana County, many farmsteads, butchers and hotels had their own ice pond and ice house. Making ice cream, brewing beer, and drinking ice water were now possible year-round. Not everyone approved; the Indiana Democrat equated drinking ice water with drug use and implied that those who indulged in it were bound for “a clime where ice water is not used” after death.
There was social status in ice as well. Serving ice-cooled drinks to summer guests meant you were a “somebody,” so upper-class folk built ice houses behind their homes, and social columns noted who had filled them in the past week. The icewater-and-chocolate tradition still observed by Indiana’s Shakespeare Club was born of that practice.
Where did the rest of us get our ice? Depends. Those living in rural townships or small boroughs could help fill the community ice house with each winter’s harvest and tap it in summer. Citizens of larger boroughs bought ice from the butcher, grocer or fishmonger until ice supply houses sprang up in the 1870s. Then in the summer of 1875 came the Indiana debut of an American classic: the ice wagon!
Ice came daily to our homes in Blairsville and Indiana. Deliveries were not suspended on Sundays – the icemen were exempt from Blue Law strictures because ice preserved food and therefore life. It sold at 35 cents for 100 pounds in 1880. Horses drew their brightly-colored wagons through the streets each morning from April through October, rain or shine; one or two men hefted blocks of up to five cubic feet with giant ice tongs and brought them in to our iceboxes. And though it was illegal and the subject of many a parental lecture, hitching one’s bike or velocipede to the back of the ice wagon as it passed was a favorite childhood sport. There’s a little Marty McFly in all of us, eh?
Demand increased here until, by 1887, there were at least five ice merchants in Indiana and three in Blairsville. Ours was cheaper than ice sold in Philadelphia, where the Knickerbocker monopoly imported it from Maine after local harvests couldn’t keep up with demand. (It was healthier, too – most major rivers were polluted!) No figures exist for our county’s per-capita consumption, but it never matched the average Philadelphian’s 1400 pounds per year.
So, how was it harvested? At first we used tools of the carpenter, stonemason and lumberjack, but purpose-designed equipment was available by mid-century. The Wyeth horse-drawn ice cutter allowed fast, high-volume harvesting, but not all of our lakes and licks froze deep enough to support its weight, so much of the harvesting here was done manually. A depth of 8 to 12 inches was typical, and some years brought up to 18 inches. Harvest usually began in January and continued into March, when gorges – ice jams that blocked and flooded waterways – put an end to the season. Here’s a description from the 1892 Indiana Progress:
“The first process is (to use) a scraper which removes snow, rough ice and other substances. Next is to mark out blocks…. Then the ice plow is brought. (It) resembles a saw with large teeth, is drawn by a horse and is guided by the marked lines. The ice is plowed within four inches of its depth, (leaving) enough to bear the workmen’s weight . Large cakes are then sawed off by hand and floated through canals kept open, guided by men with steel bars.”
Our supply was more than equal to the demand. We harvested waterways from Mahoning Creek to the Conemaugh, but the most productive sources were excavated “ice ponds.” The biggest of them was created by the Pennsylvania Railroad at Black Lick in 1870. It yielded 241 boxcars of ice that first winter, most of which went to Pittsburgh (Blairsville and New Florence got the rest). There were even three ice ponds within Indiana borough itself; of these, the hands-down favorite was Gessler’s.
Carl Gessler prided himself on being “Indiana’s Original Ice Merchant.” His ice house, ice pond, and ice wagon were each the borough’s first. Gessler’s Ice House on Chestnut Street, where he also sold ice cream and other confections, was served by its adjacent ice pond starting 1879. The pond was Indiana’s favorite skating venue between winter cuttings and was stocked with fish in summer.
But history was catching up with the ice pond. Ice famines caused by warm winters and increasing demand in the 1890s brought an alternative source to the fore. Production of artificial ice had been possible for decades, but the technology was unreliable and cost-prohibitive. Improved techniques made “plant ice” practical and profitable, and by century’s end it accounted for almost half of US ice production. Carl Gessler and the PRR both abandoned their ponds in 1903 when they switched to plant ice. Even so, natural ice wasn’t frozen out of the market just yet; the progress of each year’s ice harvest was followed by our county’s newspapers through 1936.
The fate of home-delivered ice (and the icebox) was sealed when domestic refrigerators were introduced after World War I. Not much of a threat to Jack Frost at first, they cost more than a car and were harder to maintain. But price and compactness had improved enough by 1930 that we bought more refrigerators than iceboxes that year. And for those of us who still couldn’t afford one, there was even a conversion kit that turned our icebox into a Frigidaire!
Pennsylvania’s last ice wagon horse died in 1936, and “retired” wagons were used as mock tanks for training during WWII. When the final icebox maker closed in 1953, the “Ice Age” was over.
If you’re ever out by Aging Services in Indiana, walk around the block. There where the tracks cross Chestnut between 10th and Edgewood you’ll find it, the last trace of our “Ice Age:” some gravel-mounds and a bulldozer or two in a field that was once Gessler’s Ice Pond.