The Cracker Barrel: Back to the last ice age

Conversation with grandson offers this columnist chance to share a history lesson.

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A while back our grandson, Jack, always curious and full of questions, noticed an old tool hanging from a peg down in the garage and asked me what it was.

“An ice tongs,” I said. “For moving blocks of ice.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“To carry them out to your car or truck and then into your house, to the icebox.”

I grabbed the tongs from the peg and showed him how they worked.


“When Grandma and I first moved up here to the woods, we couldn’t afford a refrigerator to keep things cold, so we bought an icebox at an auction for 10 bucks and used that instead. Back then we had a neighbor who sawed blocks of ice out of the lake and stored them in his icehouse so he could sell them all year around.”

“How big were the blocks?” asked Jack.

“They varied. Fifty pounds and up, if I remember right. Roughly a foot by a foot by a foot. But you didn’t want them too big, or they wouldn’t fit in the icebox.”

“How did he keep them from melting in the summer?”

“He built the icehouse out of double-log walls, with sawdust in between. He had his own small sawmill and he used the sawdust for insulation, both in the walls and layered over the piles of ice blocks.”


“Exactly. And it didn’t cost him anything.”

“What if the block of ice didn’t fit in your icebox?”


“You trimmed it to fit with an ice pick. Most everybody had ice picks back then. They came in handy for a lot of things.”

“What about people who lived in the city? How did they get ice?”

“Good question. A hundred years ago cutting ice was a big business. My dad grew up in Chicago and he said when he was a kid an iceman came by every few days selling ice. On hot summer days, Dad and his buddies would beg the iceman for chips of ice to suck on, and usually he gave them some.”

“Why didn’t they just drink pop?”

“I don’t think there was much of it back then. And from what Dad told me, kids rarely had anything in the way of spending money.”

“So when did all of that change to the way things are today?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Whenever electric refrigerators got to be available and affordable, I guess. Maybe during the ‘30s and ‘40s. But I do remember an aunt and uncle who had a gas refrigerator.”

Jack shook his head. “Gas?”


“Yeah. Propane, I think.”


“You bet.”

“In your lifetime?”

“Give me a break,” I said. “I’m not that old.”

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Craig Nagel, Columnist

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