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To most people today, the words "ice storm" bring to mind slippery roads, snapped tree limbs, and broken power lines. But in the 18th century, George Washington had a warm place in his heart for the coldest days of the year. He used that time to harvest a more unusual crop: ice.
Washington was thinking ahead to the summer, and had his enslaved workers collect ice from the Potomac River which enabled him and his family to eat fresh meats and enjoy cold drinks long after the arrival of spring. Washington's diaries and letters are filled with references to ice and the special structure he built to safeguard the valuable commodity as temperatures began to soar. In February 1794, he wrote to one of his farm managers that the demand for ice in the summer months was "inconceivably great," and all efforts should be made to fill the icehouse during this "last spell of freezing weather."
Washington's original ice house was located on the steep riverbank about 75 yards from the Potomac. Although archaeologists believe they have found the site of the original icehouse, the structure itself has disappeared.
Washington's first effort at an ice-house involved the collection of snow, which failed miserably, as it did not last to the beginning of summer. So he wrote to friends asking for their advice on the construction of a first-class icehouse. Washington's design called for a dry well dug into the hillside, encased within an outer wall constructed of wood planks. Between the well and the wall he installed a three-to-four inch layer of straw, which served as insulation and maintained the ice from melting. Another method of keeping the ice from melting was covering it in saw dust. Washington arched the top of the ice house and used dirt and sod to provide further insulation. Inside, a ten-foot long ladder enabled workers to retrieve ice from the well.
Throughout his estate, Washington depended upon a trial and error style of experimentation to improve operations. For example, he experimented with methods to devise a better crop rotation, a more effective fertilizer, and more woolly sheep. When it came to ice, he took a similar approach. He quickly learned that if the ice gathered was soft, it did not last long. Hard ice gathered in sub-freezing temperatures could be collected and pounded down into well located in the icehouse. When the temperatures were extremely low, he ordered his enslaved workers to cover the ice with additional water, which would soon freeze into “ a solid mass" of ice.
Filling the icehouse was a challenging activity. In the dead of winter, there was less work to accomplish in the fields, so Washington assigned a group of enslaved men to attack the icy Potomac. Men in boats pulled in floating ice which was then carted to the icehouse.
In the detailed weekly reports maintained by Washington and his managers in 1792, it is noted that slaves from Mansion House, Dogue Run, Muddy Hole, River and Union farms were assembled for the ice collecting. A two week period with about 217 men working at one time in January were spent harvesting ice. Surrounded by so much moisture, the icehouse was also prone to rotting boards which Washington saw as a safety hazard to his men. He asked a farm manager to test the joists, because if rotten, "they may give way and destroy those who may be below pounding the ice as it is thrown in."
Many of Washington's letters express great frustration. He writes that in June he opened a well that was once full of ice, "but there was not the smallest particle remaining." Yet today it seems amazing that Washington and his men could protect ice for as long as six months.
Records also imply that George Washington was very strongly encouraged to store ice by his wife Martha, who was in charge of the daily meals. She wrote in 1793, "in the warm season Ice is the most agreable thing we can have." Perhaps Mrs. Washington was not simply expressing concern about the preservation of meats. It is just as likely that she was dreaming of ice-cold drinks and one of the most fashionable desserts among the upper classes, both in European courts and on American plantations: ice cream. While he may be known for his strong military and leadership skills, Washington was also a man who was always thinking ahead and interested in innovative techniques, even when dealing with something that may seem as mundane as ice.