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A Short History of Ice

One of the first recorded uses of natural ice to preserve food and make ice cream was in China in 1000 B.C. Richard the Lionheart purportedly feasted on gifts of frozen sherbets from the sultan of Syria during the 12th-century Crusades.

Until the mid-1800s ice was a luxury item. Even if you were a farmer able to hack your own ice out of a nearby pond, it was almost impossible to store unless, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, you could afford to build your own brick-lined icehouse.

The first commercial production of natural ice in the country came in 1806, when a Bostonian, Frederick Tudor, figured out how to ship lake ice to the Caribbean island of Martinique. Within 20 years natural ice became one of America’s most significant natural resources.

While there’s no reliable data on total production of natural ice during the 1800s, statistics on U.S. consumption indicate that by 1900 more than 10 million tons of ice were used annually. Exports, however, dwarfed domestic consumption. According to Redfern, the only U.S. commodity with a larger export market than ice in 1880 was cotton. In 1890 — when the foreign demand for natural ice was already on the decline — the U.S. exported 25 million tons.

Cedar Falls began with a conventional icehouse in 1858.

A new design arrived in 1921; ice was less vulnerable to melting in the round brick building because of the smaller exterior surface.

Today it’s the only round icehouse in the United States and has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Major renovations by the Cedar Falls Historical Society (CFHS) have transformed the structure into the Ice House Museum, dedicated to telling the story of natural ice production through exhibits, films, and lectures.

“It is unique nationally,” says CFHS Board Chair Donald Redfern, “because it’s one of only two icehouses in the country to tell their own story of natural ice harvesting.”


Before the Snow Flies

The Ice House Museum is open to visitors
May through October (Wed., Sun. 1–4 p.m.;
Sat. 10–4 p.m.). For more information, visit or call 319-266-5149.

Mary Gottschalk is a freelance writer
in Des Moines.

Photos courtesy Cedar Falls Historical Society
and Mary Gottschalk.

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