Ice Houses: Remembering a Time Without Refrigerators, with Aretha Marshall – Louisa County

This film was directed and produced by Natalie Roper as part of the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course at the University of Virginia, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in Spring 2012.

Tricking Nature and Remembering a Time Before Refrigeration: Ice Houses in Louisa County, Virginia

by Natalie Roper

Read this story as a PDF, with images

It’s hard to imagine life without refrigerators or freezers. Today I went to the refrigerator for eggs, butter, milk, turkey, lettuce, water in a Brita (filtered water is a whole other story), salad dressing and yogurt. Come to think of it, the only things I ate that were not from the refrigerator were pita chips.

For 92 year old Aretha Marshall, however, a time without refrigerators is an easily accessible memory that she holds dear. On Saturday March 17th at 11am I drove around Bumpass, VA trying to follow a GPS, which had no jurisdiction over the area. I had been warned of this but I mistakenly depended on it anyways. A little late and a little flustered, I pulled onto a dirt road, knocked on the wrong house, and then finally the right one, and met Aretha and her daughter Patricia. We sat outside on the beautiful, windy day and I just listened. Aretha recounted in vivid detail how it was growing up on her family’s farm. She described what sounded like paradise, “wild berries would come up out of the clear blue and we would bring them home in buckets and make pie”[1]. And then Aretha, excited and proud at the same time, sort of yelling despite her hearing aid, exclaimed, “And we had an ice house!” I had never heard of an ice house, only an ice box, which I’ve since found out came much later. Aretha’s excitement was contagious and I listened eagerly as she recounted this icehouse. They had a pond and when it froze over with ice several inches think they would break the ice and harvest it for the winter. But harvesting ice did no good if there was no way of preserving it and protecting it from the summer heat. She described a large hole in the ground that had a top on it. Ice houses take advantage of the constant ground temperature of about 55 degrees if the hole is dug deep enough and insulating the ice using straw or sawdust helps keep the cold consolidated[2].  As Marshall recalls, “we would break that ice and put a layer of straw and a layer of ice, a layer of straw and a layer of ice, until it got up to the top”[3]. To Marshall’s pride and my surprise, “Right there under that ground, ice was there from the winter and all summer”[4].

As George Washington’s journal shows, he was very involved in the design and best practices of his icehouse at Mount Vernon. In writing to his friend Robert Morris in frustration that his ice was already gone, he learned the importance of straw as insulation that Marshall explained. Morris had learned that “the closer it is packed the better it keeps and I believe that if the walls were lined with straw between the ice and stone it would preserve it much”[5].  Icehouses date all the way back to the 17th century but it wasn’t until the 1830s that people other than the most wealthy began harvesting and saving ice for food preservation[6].

According to Howell Living History Farm, as ice harvesting and preservation became more accessible, structures and advice began to be published in farm journals. The structures were varying in size, materials, and grandeur. However, they all seemed to remain constant on three key features: a deep hole in the ground, insulation of some kind, and a top to keep out heat. Architects like our own Thomas Jefferson became infatuated with the design and look of his icehouse at Monticello but simpler versions like that which Marshall described in Bumpass, VA still do the same trick. A trick that we take for granted to today. A trick that Olmert in Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies calls “faintly devious because we can cheat Nature, providing ice in seasons when non should exist at all”[7]. A trick that we might [8] all but forget if it weren’t for the important stories of people like Aretha Marshall. In reflecting on hearing her mother’s story, Patricia Marshall exclaimed that “when things are handed to you, you lose ability to think, think, think, how, how, how”[9]. But in this time where people had to be resourceful and creative to trick nature, “it was a time was a time, I believe, when God taught us to use this brain”[10]

[1] Marshall, Aretha. Personal Interview. 17 March. 2012.

[2] Michael Olmert, Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 209.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael Olmert, Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 207-208.

[6] Larry Kidder, Ice: The Winter Harvest that Lasts All Year, (Spring 2003:Date Accessed April 2012)

[7] Michael Olmert, Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 206.

[8] Journal page on the construction of ice houses. Digital image. Hathi Trust. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <;.

[9] Patricia Marshall. Personal Interview. 17 March. 2012.

[10] Ibid.

For more about the Virginia Food Heritage Planning course, visit


One thought on “Ice Houses: Remembering a Time Without Refrigerators, with Aretha Marshall – Louisa County

  1. Pingback: Local Food Heritage Stories | Virginia Food Heritage Project

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