On a hot summer day, a tall icy beverage is essential. But it wasn’t always as easy as going to the freezer in your kitchen.
The Wilton Historical Society reminds us that at the turn of the 20th century and earlier, your ice might have come from a local pond. The historical society sent the following.
In the not too distant past, ice was considered the first important agricultural product of the year, being harvested in January and February. Before refrigerators, foods either needed to be preserved through canning, smoking, or salting, or kept fresh through the use of ice boxes. Ice boxes depended on a steady supply of fresh ice — no easy task in the summer months.
To satisfy the demand for blocks of ice, people harvested it from New England ponds and lakes in the winter, usually in January and February when temperatures were the coldest. The earliest ice harvests resembled early labor systems used for harvesting crops, with neighbors and friends pitching in and receiving compensation from a share of the crop.
Ice houses were built one foot off the ground to allow for the passage of air under the ice. They featured double walls, one foot apart, and packed with shavings or saw dust for insulation. The pitched floors allowed for drainage.
A farming community, Wilton had a fair number of ice houses; some long-time residents may remember an old ice house at the corner of Olmstead Hill Road and Route 7, which was still standing as recently as the 1980’s.
To see an ice house today, you need go no further than Ambler Farm. The well-preserved ice house was built in January 1900 by a local carpenter. Hannah Ambler’s 1900 journal notes “Elizabeth paid George Taylor $400 first payment on ice house.” It was finished by the 17th of the month.
Further journal entries describe arrangements being made to harvest ice at Finch Pond, on a branch of the Saugatuck, near Newtown Turnpike. The journal shows that on Jan. 10 “the men are on ice pond for the first this morning. They have been carting all day.” Built around 1840, Henry Finch’s sawmill was on the pond, making it convenient to obtain the sawdust used to insulate the harvested blocks of ice.
In Wilton, farmers generally kept their ice for food storage, but might barter or sell some locally or to customers in Manhattan.
Specialized ice harvesting tools include ice saws, pry bars, ice tongs, and a hand-pushed ice marker which scribed lines in the ice to mark the blocks for sawing. The Wilton Historical Society’s extensive tool collection in the 1860 Abbott Barn has some excellent examples.
Ice harvesting continued to be an important part of preserving food for year-round into the early part of the 1900s. The electric refrigerator was invented in 1913, though the old-fashioned ice box was still in use. By the time World War I came around, the U.S. Food Administration and the National Association of Ice Industries called upon the American people to help the war effort by harvesting ice.
Ice not only helped preserve food, it made a favorite dessert possible — ice cream. A big fan of ice cream in the 18th Century was none other than our third President, Thomas Jefferson. One of only 11 recipes surviving in his hand is one for ice cream, which historians believe he came by during his stay in France from 1784 to 1789.
The recipe may be found at http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/ice-cream