West Chester's Antique Ice Tool Museum Celebrates an Era When Ice Was Big Business
Before the freezer was invented, ice was cut from frozen rivers and shipped across the country.
Photo by Roger Morris.
It all began on rivers like the Kennebec in Maine and the Hudson in New York, both of which would freeze several feet deep in winter. A flotilla of men with saws, augurs, scrapers and plows descended on the ice, first cutting holes to gauge depth. Horse-drawn scrappers removed the snow cover, and young boys with scoops followed to keep the ice clean—or mostly so. Plows gouged out six-to-10-inch furrows, then men with saws cut the ice into large blocks, which were guided through ice-cleared canals to storehouses on the river’s edge.
In the 19th century, the ice industry was big business—and it could be a dangerous business, too. In one accident, 15 men drowned on upstate New York’s Saint Lawrence River. “The warehouses would employ two men to work all night to keep the canals from freezing back over,” says ice industry historian Peter Stack.
As owner of the Brandywine Ice Company, Stack made a career of freezing water, then transporting chunks of it to people who wanted to cool things off. In retirement, he’s devoted his knowledge and his immense collection of memorabilia to the Antique Ice Tool Museum on the western edge of West Chester.
Located inconspicuously along Sconnelltown Road in East Bradford Township, the museum is a fascinating celebration of a forgotten industry that peaked in the 1880s at a time when there was no artificially produced ice. Instead, huge chunks were hacked out of the frozen waters of America’s rivers in the Northeast and sometimes transported by ship halfway around the world to places where people had never seen ice—or knew what to do with it.
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The museum has everything from ice saws to ice boxes (the first refrigerators) to the trucks painted yellow—the “color” of the ice industry—that delivered ice. “I recently found a boxcar in Ohio that had been used to ship ice, but they sold it before I could buy it,” Stack laments.
He and his wife oversaw every aspect of the museum’s construction. They discovered an 1834 barn on the grounds of what was once the Darlington Seminary for Girls, converting it into a modern space, which opened in the fall of 2012. The finished product is too grand to be simply a vanity project. In addition to a short opening film, the museum has an audio guide with 46 stations.
But Stack, a gregarious and strong-willed man in his 80s, delights in being a tour guide. He refuses to be hurried as he takes visitors through the brightly lit, two-story structure. He loves to ask guests questions— and then supply answers when they’re often stumped.
Stack remains fascinated by what was once a vast industry second in size only to cotton. Ice purveyors partnered with the nation’s railways to ship freshly cut meat from the Midwest to the East Coast. Ice stations were located every 400 miles to replenish the rail cars. Ships, meanwhile, would store the frozen commodity under blankets of straw, sawdust or other materials to keep it insulated as they supplied the world from Cuba to Asia. “Some people had never seen ice before or even knew about it,” Stack says. “So they had to be taught why they needed it.” Some who touched ice for the first time were perplexed that it “burned” them like fire.
In America, with its fast-growing cities, ice thoroughly changed the daily way of living. Unless meat was smoked or otherwise preserved, it traditionally had to be slaughtered and cut up by butchers on a regular basis. “Now housewives with ice boxes didn’t have to go to the meat market and greengrocer every day in summer,” Stack says.
And they could eat more fresh vegetables and safer meats. It also meant that purveyors were now able to have large, ice-cooled display cases of perishable items, forever changing grocery shopping. Just as the milkman delivered his quarts and butter to the back doors of homes and businesses on a regular basis, the iceman now delivered ice, at first in horse-drawn wagons and later in insulated ice trucks. Strong-armed men with ice tongs would handle the large blocks, some weighing 100 pounds, whose size kept them from quickly melting.
Due to their colder, more reliable winters and relatively clean waters, Maine and upstate New York were natural locations for the ice business. But Stack points out that an ice business was also carved out locally. He has an old map of West Chester, which shows a small lake bounded by Market, Gay, Adams and Worthington streets that was a source of blocks of winter ice. It’s long since been filled in. “There was even an ice famine in the US in the 1880s and 1890s, when there were several warm winters,” Stacks says. “Ice had to be imported from Europe.”
Eventually, though, it was not the climate that ruined the ice business. It was the invention of artificially made ice that could turn water into ice cubes anywhere. By the end of World War I, America’s ice age, which employed more than 90,000 workers at its peak, was coming to a close. It was snuffed out for good in the 1930s.
As for Stack, he came by his occupation and passion naturally. His father ran a natural ice business in New York. After working for years building facilities for corporations like DuPont then FMC, he went into business for himself, eventually applying some of the gains he made selling artificially produced cubes to preserving the story of naturally frozen ones.