Feature

Antique Ice Tool Museum in West Chester

A place to honor one of America’s biggest 19th-century exports.

By |

Peter Stack has an interesting trivia question for you. If cotton was America’s biggest export product during the 1800s, what was second largest? Got a guess? Ready? OK, here it is: ice. 

Yes, ice, the kind that comes tumbling out of your refrigerator door in cubes anytime you push a glass against the lever. 

It is difficult today to imagine how big a business harvesting, preserving and selling ice from rivers and lakes was 150 years ago. Consider that there were once about 150 commercial ice warehouses mining frozen water from the surface of the Hudson River between Albany and New York City. Along with the Kennebec River in Maine, these were two of the biggest sources for American businesses to supply its citizens and millions abroad with cold comfort. Sailing ships, then steamers took their frozen cargo to such exotic places as Cuba, India and Australia.

“Many of these people had never seen ice,” Stack says, “so they had to be told what it was used for before you could sell it to them.”

Antique Ice Tool Museum founder Peter Stack.
Antique Ice Tool Museum founder Peter Stack.

The day of the iceman may have cometh—and goneth—but Stack is still fascinated by the once-flourishing business, so much so that he has created an intriguing, expertly displayed, three-story museum devoted totally to that topic: the Antique Ice Tool Museum in West Chester.

There is a reason behind Stack’s fascination with all things ice. His father ran an ice business in Connecticut, and Stack himself, after first working in building construction for industrial giants DuPont and FMC, decided to get into the ice business himself, although by them all ice was fresh frozen in machines, not harvested from rivers. “I got tired of moving my family for my jobs,” Stack says, so he started Brandywine Ice Company, first in West Chester and later located in Aston. His first dollar is long since gone, but he does have his first receipt of sale. 

“We ended up selling ice to all the Wawas and even to many of the airlines,” Stack says as he takes me on a tour of the museum. He sold the company about 10 years ago and sort-of retired.

Still in the beginning stages of its development,  the museum occupies what was once a dilapidated barn on Sconnelltown Road on West Chester’s west side, along an abandoned trolley line. The exhibits are diverse, quite well done, and fascinating—worthy of the three-hour tour that I boiled down to 90 minutes. Stack is still fiddling with installing a museum quality audio guide with 46 stations as he decides how he wants to promote his new creation. 

In 2009, Stack and his wife Joann purchased the museum property, constructed in 1834 as a barn by William Ingram and later used for decades as part of Darlington Seminary for Girls. At that time, the building was in sad shape with trees and vines growing within it. The Stacks restored it and plan to add on a visitors’ center next. Although in retirement, Stack still has his CEO presence, curating with all the authority of a presentation to investors.

A motorized ice truck.
A motorized ice truck.

The museum’s overview of the ice industry at its zenith begins with displays and myriad tools that illustrate ice being cut on rivers or lakes, packed in huge chunks in warehouses at waterside and later transported to regional and then local warehouses where it was gradually cut down in size until it ended up anywhere refrigeration was needed, from the butcher shop to the family ice box in the kitchen or on the back porch.

Imagine this scene on a frozen river any winter during the 1800s: 

  •  First, men drilled holes in the ice with long hand augurs to gauge its depth. 
  • Then snow was removed by a wide scraper drawn by horses (as was all other machinery). 
  • Horses then pulled ice plows that were 6 to 10 inches deep to make the first cuts in the ice, after which long, hand-drawn ice saws carved out smaller blocks. 
  • Young boys manned special carts to remove horse droppings and to cleanse the affected ice with formaldehyde. 
  • Once the ice was cut, canals were used to transport it to the ice warehouses. “The warehouses would employ two men who would work all night to keep the canals from freezing back over so they would be ready the next morning,” Stack says.

As much as he is fascinated by its lore, Stack points out it was a very danger business. “In one accident, 15 men drowned on the St. Lawrence River,” he says.

What is amazing about Stack’s museum is that he has not one or two rusted examples of the plows, saws and other machinery, but dozens of each, all slightly different, all in good shape. Photos and magazine articles are integrated into the exhibits to help carry the story along.

The museum also has dozens of transport vehicles—horse-drawn wagons and then motorized trucks as the industry gradually wound down in the 1930s and ’40s—to deliver ice to every house, just as coal, milk and other necessities were delivered directly to the front door, back door or basement. 

“Most ice wagons and trucks were painted yellow, which had been branded as the ice industry’s dominant color,” Stack says, and his collection at the museum is a large fleet of 16 vehicles. Tongs of every imaginable shape illustrate how the ice was moved, often in back-breaking chunks of 100 pounds or more. There’s also an array of ice picks. 

The railroads would have ice stations every 400 miles to replace what had melted along the journey.

At one time, home iceboxes had as many different options and features as does a modern iPhone. “There were many manufacturers, and each had a variety of models,” Stack says, thumbing a pre-Sears catalogue. Generally, the blocks of ice were inserted into heavily-insulated compartments to keep household dairy and meat items chilled, but some models even had an ice water tap on the front, much like today’s modern refrigerators. 

The ice business wasn’t limited to supplying just homes and butcher shops. As basic as ice seems now, the commercial use of ice is considered by historians a breakthrough invention, every bit as revolutionary as the automobile or telephone.

Plentiful ice that could be accessed year-round made it possible to have fresh meat and produce move safely and quickly from one part of the country to the next by rail. To prove the point, Stack pulls out a book to show railroad cars contracted by Armour taking on ice for a delivery of tons of freshly slaughtered beef from the Midwest to the East Coast. “The railroads would have ice stations every 400 miles to replace what had melted along the journey,” he explains.

Maine and upstate New York were prime  locations for the ice business, due to their colder, more-reliable winters and their relatively clean waters. But there was some natural ice business locally, Stack says. He points to an old map of West Chester that shows a small lake, long since gone, bounded by Market, Gay, Adams and Worthington streets, that was used as a source of blocks of winter ice.

The natural ice age didn’t end all at once, but gradually receded like a retreating glacier. By the end of World War I, it was overtaken by manufactured ice. By the 1930s, the industry that had once employed as many as 90,000 Americans was reduced to a tepid puddle.

And it all comes to life again at Stack’s Antique Ice Tool Museum.

To learn more about the museum, visit www.antiqueicetoolmuseum.org