The days when ice was delivered to your home

By Rick Palsgrove, Groveport editor

Photos courtesy of the Groveport Heritage Museum
Men loading a large block of ice on to an ice delivery truck at the Groveport Ice Plant in 1936.

It’s winter, so I thought it would be cool to write about ice.

I can recall from the days of my youth when older adults referred to the electric refrigerator as the “ice box.” This was a carryover reference from their own youths when refrigerators did not exist and people had an actual ice box in their homes to keep perishable food cool and fresh.

Ice boxes were popular in the 19th century and the early 20th century and were usually wooden boxes with a tin or zinc lining insulated with sawdust or straw. A big block of ice was placed in a compartment of the ice box to keep the interior of the box cool for a short amount of time. People bought blocks of ice, weighing between 25 to 100 pounds, which were delivered by the “ice man” via horse drawn wagons, and later by trucks, to households on a regular basis, often daily because the ice melted fairly quickly.

Bill Painter on an ice delivery wagon in Groveport in the early 20th century.

Ice was harvested naturally from frozen ponds in the winter. In Canal Winchester and Groveport ice blocks were also cut from the frozen Ohio and Erie Canal. The harvested ice was kept cool and stored in insulated ice houses often covered with straw or sawdust to insulate it.

The Groveport Ice Plant was located at the rear of the Groveport Creamery on the northeast corner of Blacklick and Church streets. Ice was usually delivered daily from the ice plant to homes. Customers placed order cards on their doors or windows stating how many pounds of ice they needed. The ice man would then cut the necessary amount from a large block of ice, carry it into the house using large tongs, and place it in the ice box.

Men cutting and harvesting ice on the Ohio and Erie Canal in Groveport in the early 20th century.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, as the story goes, some kids in Groveport would distract the ice delivery man while other kids broke off pieces of ice from the back of the ice truck. The kids would then sell the small chunks of ice to street laborers or other workers in town for a penny a piece on hot summer days.

While the use of ice boxes and ice delivery was common in town, it was a different story on rural farms.

According to Metro Parks Slate Run Living Historical Farm Program Manager Ann Culek, “In the time period we portray (Ohio in the 1880s) at the farm there is little evidence that anyone used an icebox at the time, as there was no place with water. Our pond was not here then, but was added by Metro Parks. In looking at probate inventories of the time we did find people who lived closer to streams having ice saws. I do believe there were a few ice houses along Walnut Creek Pike.”

She said farmers could cut and harvest ice if they lived close to a body of water.

“There was no ice delivery from the ice man this far out in the countryside, said Culek. “We have seen, but cannot document (because my memory is hazy), farmers in the 1880s may have purchased ice from a store closer to town, perhaps for ice cream.”

She said, to keep perishable foods cool, the farmers most likely used a root cellar or a spring house.

Culek related a personal experience involving ice harvesting she and her husband had when they lived in Maine and worked at an 1870s farm museum.

“We cut ice there regularly,” said Culek. “An incident happened one day when we were cutting ice as one of our team of oxen wandered onto a recently cut and refrozen section and fell in. Imagine one ox up on the ice while the other ox, still yoked together, was in the water. It was quite the ice rescue. One person jumped in to put a rope on the ox and my husband fetched a team of horses to pull the ox out of the pond. One staff member ended up afterward in a hot bathtub with a stiff slug of scotch. The cold, wet ox ended up in the 1870s era woodstove heated kitchen to warm up. The floors needed a good cleanup at the end of the day. The ox also backed into one of the kitchen windows and busted it out. Every time we saw that broken and mended wooden window sash it reminded us of the ox and the ice incident. All survived and now we have a story to tell. Sometimes ice cutting and doing living history can be really interesting.”

Ice boxes remained in common use in homes until the advent of the electric refrigerator in the 20th century. While there were electric refrigerators in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that refrigerator technology improved and they became more affordable and therefore more common in homes.

Some ice boxes remained in use until World War II, but by the 1950s they mostsly melted away into history.

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