Not too long ago, as part of my continuing series of “quick detours to get away from the monotony of I-95,” the kids and I visited Shirley Plantation, southeast of Richmond, Virginia. The kids now profess to hate anything associated with history because I have dragged them to so many historic sites. So although the detour off the interstate was not too far, it seemed to take a very long time. The roads were narrow and winding with a shaded seclusion that gave me the sense that we were about to become the unnamed victims at the start of a horror film. Yes, the mood coming from the back of the minivan was that bad.

But as soon as we stopped, everything changed. That’s because someone decided the rocks in the parking area looked like potatoes.

Okay, whatever. I’ll take it. So the kids liked the rocks in the parking lot. There was one other thing at Shirley Plantation that captured their interest and that was the ice house. I thought it was cool that they had made it out of the foundation of an old wing of the house that had burned down. The kids just liked it because it was so deep and dark. They couldn’t see the bottom. When they dropped rocks (only the ones that did not look like potatoes) down inside, they couldn’t hear them hit the bottom.

So I thought of the kids when I visited Hampton Plantation a few weeks ago. Hampton is north of Baltimore and though it was once a two-day journey from town, I can now get there from my house in just about twenty minutes, so the kids can stay at home. But they might have liked the ice house. It reminded me of a Celtic burial mound. Up on top of the earthen mound was the hatch for putting the ice in. On the opposite side there was a walkway tunneling into the mound. It led to a door at a lower level where servants (slaves for much of the plantation’s history) could enter to extract ice when it was needed.

My next question was “just when was it needed?” Obviously the ice was stored in winter and used sometime during the warmer months. But what was it used for? The guide at the plantation said ice was used to chill wine and make ice cream. Okay, that seems reasonable. But the ice house at Hampton is 33 feet deep. Even allowing space for insulation, that’s a lot of ice if you’re just using it for ice cream.

The natural thing to us would be to use the ice for food preservation. But I’ve never run across any evidence that it was used for that more mundane purpose. Everyone, rich and poor, tended to preserve food by smoking, salting, drying or pickling it. Only the wealthy had access to ice, and they seemed to use it to show off, to enjoy luxuries unable to common folk. Is it possible they did not realize that they could keep food fresher longer with ice? That seems unlikely, given that they must surely have noticed that meat and cream keep better in winter than in summer.

In any case, this is an area I’d like to explore more, so I’m going to start looking closely for references to chilled beverages, desserts and other things involving the use of ice. I’d also like to find out more about where the ice came from. Plantation homes in the deep south had ice brought down by ship from New England. But here in Maryland, we might have had enough of our own native ice that it could just be cut from a local pond.

Incidentally, to keep the ice cream season lasting through the summer, the ice house apparently had to be packed with ice, not snow. George Washington wrote to a friend complaining that the snow he packed in his ice house at Mt. Vernon had melted too soon. He blamed the design of his ice house and asked for building instructions for a different type. But the friend, Robert Morris of Philadelphia, said that the problem was not the structure but the snow itself. “”I tried snow one year and lost it by June,” he wrote. “The ice keeps until October or November.”*

But you know, I’m not so sure the ice house wasn’t to blame after all. Maybe it wasn’t deep enough. I think the next time I go to Mt. Vernon, I’ll have to try dropping a rock in the ice house to see if I can hear it land.

Of course, first I’ll have make sure it doesn’t look like a potato.

Until next time…

* Quote taken from “The Papers of George Washington”