The Ice Museum

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Tangible evidence of New England’s flourishing nineteenth-century ice-harvesting industry has been scant for decades, but that’s about to change. Now almost completely restored and already listed on the National Register of Historic Places is a small icehouse in South Bristol, Maine, where for more than 150 years ice was cut from a nearby one-acre pond, stored, and then sold year-round by five generations of the Thompson family.

Technically, since the Thompson icehouse was a strictly local business, it does not reflect the scope of the international ice export trade that boomed throughout New England in the days of the squarerigger. Nonetheless, the methods and tools used by Asa Thompson and his descendants—all preserved in exhibits and photographs at the Thompson Ice House Museum—are not very different from those used in the better-known ice export trade.

Asa Thompson built his icehouse in 1826, intending to use its frozen yield only for the nearby farm that had already been in his family for a generation. But he produced such a surplus of ice that neighbors talked him into selling it also to local summer residents and fishermen.

South Bristol’s production was never on a scale to rival Maine’s great Penobscot River operations—where ice was processed through a block-long building and shipped to the ends of the earth—but it outlasted them all. Supplying local needs until 1985, the Thompson icehouse produced, according to an estimate of Gwendolyn Thompson, wife of Asa’s great-great-grandson Herbert, more than 240 million pounds of ice.

Even when the refrigerator pushed most American icehouses into the history books, Herbert Thompson’s business thrived. He found a booming local market in supplying ice to trucks carrying South Bristol fish to out-of-state markets. And for a while he sold refrigerators as a sideline, “just in case.”

By the mid-1980s, however, the production of ice admittedly purer, clearer, and longer-lasting than that made artificially was soaring in cost. The Thompson icehouse itself had suffered the ravages of time, rotting away beside the creek that Asa had dammed to form the pond back when John Quincy Adams was in the White House. In 1985 it closed its doors.

“No icehouse was designed to last forever,” says Francis Beard of South Bristol, a local historian, “and Thompson’s was no exception. They just fall down, as this one nearly did. That’s when a lot of us decided to try to save it.” To date $93,000 of a goal of $120,000 has been raised toward that end, all by private donation. Volunteers have cleared underbrush and trees that clogged the banks of the pond and professional tradesmen have restored the icehouse itself.

Inside, the windowless icehouse is very crude in appearance. “It was designed for its work, not looks,” says Norman Hamlin, a retired naval architect who serves as president of the Thompson Ice House Preservation Corporation. Its three rooms were originally all used for ice storage, but today one room is a museum displaying relics of the building’s working life. The floor is gravel and stone, the walls and roof rough-sawn boards. A layer of sawdust between the double walls served as an insulation to keep the ice frozen all summer long.

An “Ice Celebration” took place in January 1990 when volunteers, many of them old-time ice harvesters, actually cut ice from the pond. “We hope to hold an ice festival each year if there is interest and funds enough,” explains Hamlin. “Meanwhile, the icehouse is open during the summer months for visitors. And we haven’t ruled out the idea of turning the Thompson house into production once again if there’s a market.”

All of which is happy news to the Thompsons, whose own home lies just across Route 129 from the ice business Herbert ran almost since boyhood. “Years from now people may wonder what an icehouse was all about,” he says. “Now they’ll know.”