Early Refrigeration – The Icehouse

Reid Dickie

Until rural electrification reached small towns and farms via Manitoba Hydro in the mid to late 1930s and refrigerators became available, the icehouse played an important role in keeping perishable foodstuffs from spoiling.  A small building, often wood frame or made of fieldstones, was built near the house. Blocks of ice were piled inside and covered with sawdust to keep them from melting during the hot summer months.  A fresh supply of ice was added to the building every winter. This is a typical fieldstone icehouse that was built around 1890 and still stands in Shoal Lake, MB today.

Before electricity, Shoal Lake Creamery organized “ice days.”  Because the creamery stored vast amounts of ice to keep the milk, cream and butter from spoiling, when word got out that the creamery was cutting ice, townspeople and farmers from far and wide converged on the lake to get their share.

Hand powered saws cut long strips about 24 inches wide and cut again into sections about 3 feet long. Clydesdales provided the horsepower to pull the blocks of ice out of the water and onto the waiting sleighs.  The horses had done this job for so many years that they didn’t even have to be driven.  They simply went around and around waiting patiently until the hooks were fastened to the ice blocks and a soft “get up” was all that was necessary to put them into action.

Once the ice was hauled home, the blocks were slid into the icehouse and covered with a good layer of sawdust, which effectively kept the ice from melting all summer. When the sawdust lost its insulating power it was replaced with fresh aromatic sawdust.

Most kitchens had an icebox with a compartment at the top holding a block of ice releasing cold air over the perishable food below.  The ice had to be replenished every day.  Ice boxes had drip pans which caught the water from the melting ice. Often forgotten, the drip pans overflowed onto the kitchen floor.

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Filed under Heritage Buildings, Local History, Manitoba Heritage, Pioneers

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