The Furrow Winter/Spring 2003
|Ice - The Winter Harvest that Lasts All Year - by Larry Kidder|
There is nothing quite like enjoying a bowl of homemade ice cream with family and friends on the farmhouse lawn in July. Ice cream has been served at Howell Farm since at least 1906 and today we make our ice cream the same way it was then, using ice harvested from the farm pond in mid-winter and stored in the ice house. This annual ice harvest at Howell Farm, and getting ice from the icehouse to make ice cream, is an opportunity for visitors to experience a practice from the past and better understand how refrigeration has revolutionized our standard of living today.
The term refrigeration, from the Latin word frigus, frost, is older than its modern definition and refers to any means used to cool something using the principle of heat transfer. By this process, when two substances come in contact with each other, heat is transferred from the warmer to the cooler substance and the warmer substance cools while the cooler substance warms. For example, a bottle of warm milk placed in contact with ice cools as heat is drawn from it, and the heat absorbed by the ice causes it to melt as it converts from a solid to a liquid.
Since primitive times humans have known that finding a cool place, such as a cave, to store extra meat retards its spoilage. In classical times the Greeks and Romans used snow-filled pits, lined and covered with grass or straw, to cool wines. Cool wine was decidedly an upper class treat and the emperor Nero used slaves to bring "harvested" snow down from the mountains. In the United States the earliest reference to harvesting ice and snow and saving it in pits and caves is in 1665 Virginia . It wasn't until about the 1830s, though, that harvested ice was commonly used for food preservation by ordinary people.
The organized harvest and year-round use of ice demonstrated in the Howell Farm ice harvest is a 19th century phenomenon. Before specialized ice harvesting tools were invented, simple tools such as axes, saws, and scrapers made by local blacksmiths and carpenters were used by farmers. During the 1800s many specialized tools were invented and eventually there were about 60 different tools used in the ice harvest for preparing the ice surface, cutting the blocks, poling blocks to the shore, breaking blocks, and getting the ice into storage.
Harvesting the ice didn't do much good unless there was a way to preserve it, especially as the cold winter months gave way to summer heat. After early experiments with pits holding irregularly chopped hunks of ice sitting in their own melt water, resourceful men developed regularly shaped pits, regularly sawn blocks of ice, suitable drainage, and insulation to preserve the ice all year. As early as 1803, farm journals published articles giving advice on constructing icehouses. In practice the structures came in many shapes and sizes; were made of wood, stone or brick; and were built under ground, above ground or as combinations of the two. In 1855 an article noted that many farmers considered their icehouse to be almost as necessary as the wood house or barn. This was especially true of dairy farmers who needed ice to keep milk cool before delivery to the creamery. Because ice was used in the farmhouse or dairy, the icehouse was usually located nearby rather than near the lake or pond.
The Howell Farm icehouse, reconstructed in 1990, is a well-built farm icehouse convenient both to the source of ice and the house and barn where it was used. It holds 25 tons of ice. Its stone-lined pit extends 10-feet underground and has a plank floor with crushed stone beneath for drainage. Its above-ground wooden section has double walls with insulating sawdust in between, has vents to reduce humidity, and has an east/west roof orientation to avoid the heat build-up that would be caused by a south-facing roof surface. The gables are vented, showing the builder's understanding of the importance of allowing hot air to escape. The stone-lined pit is original. The above-ground wooden portion was built based on archaeological evidence and oral history descriptions from local residents, one of whom recalled watching the family take ice from the icehouse to make ice cream for a child's birthday party on the farmhouse lawn in 1906.
Having a year-round supply of ice was great, but in order to provide cooling for food in the farmhouse an icebox refrigerator was necessary. Early refrigerators were developed primarily to keep butter hard and attractive for customers. Iceboxes were made of oak, pine, or ash; lined with zinc, slate, porcelain or galvanized metal; and, insulated with charcoal, cork, flax straw, or mineral wool. The kitchen icebox refrigerators, such as the Gibson in the Howell Farm kitchen, were not mass produced until there was a commercial ice industry that insured ample, affordable supplies of ice and a distribution system to bring it to homes in towns and cities. Such a commercial industry developed simultaneously with the growth of ice harvests by farmers. The harvesting methods were very similar, but the commercial icehouses were huge. Ice was sent by railroad to cities and by ship to South America and Asia . In town and city homes the iceman with horse drawn wagon delivered ice almost daily for the kitchen icebox. The same style iceboxes were purchased by farmers for their kitchens to utilize the ice stored in their own icehouses.
The icebox refrigerator worked on a simple principle. The air inside the box became cooler as it transferred its heat to the ice. The cooler air sank to the bottom of the refrigerator displacing the warmer air and drawing heat from the food in the lower levels. This air circulation continued until the ice melted and was interrupted whenever the door was opened and more warm air was admitted. Generally, a block of ice would last a day, or longer, if doors were not opened too frequently. The melt water from the ice drained into a drip pan.
Although the first Kelvinator electric refrigerator was introduced in 1914, iceboxes were used in Pleasant Valley until the arrival of electricity in the Valley about the middle of the 20 th century. So, 1900 was still a time when the annual ice harvest was important to farmers and, like all crops, ice presented problems as well as benefits for farmers. The basic requirement is freezing weather, but fluctuating temperatures, rain, and other factors can ruin the crop. From year to year, therefore, the ice varies in quality and in a warm winter there may even be none at all. When this happens today, ice has to be purchased from a commercial firm just as farmers in the past did. When the ice was good at Howell Farm in the early 20th century, there was often enough to sell some surplus to neighbors.
The ice harvest was a communal and social event, much like a barn raising, wheat harvest, or corn husking bee. A descendant of dairy farmers from Woodstown, NJ noted that, "Ice had to be harvested when it was ready, so large crews of help had to be recruited and organized quickly when the ice was six inches thick or more. Sometimes, when it seemed that mild weather was on the way, the ice harvesters worked at night by moonlight and by lantern-light." The Howell Farm ice harvest carries on this communal tradition with visitors and school children helping the farmers with the harvest.
No matter when you visit the Farm you can enjoy the fruits of the winter harvest: drinks kept cool in an ice box and ice cream frozen with natural ice. When you go to your modern electric refrigerator for a cold drink, or ice cream, think about the complex knowledge and hard labor required to make such a pleasure possible in 1900.
This article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2003 edition of The Furrow, the quarterly newsletter published by the Friends of Howell Living History Farm. The contents are © 2003 The Friends of Howell Living History Farm.