Preserving food was a major concern for Nova Scotians living before the time of electrical refrigeration. Although most 1940s families were not overly concerned about food spoiling during frigid maritime winters, the advent of spring and summer posed more of a dilemma. Some kept perishables in their well during the warmer months, but most households used an icehouse to keep food cool.
Icehouses were tall, shed-like structures with insulated walls packed to the roof with large blocks of ice, cut by hand from a local lake in winter and stored between layers of sawdust. As temperatures rose and wells warmed, this stored ice became the best method of preserving perishable foods like meat, milk, fruit, and vegetables.
Ice was retrieved using a ladder, a shovel to dig through the sawdust, and large, scissor-like tongs with jaws that could open a foot (or more!) wide to pick up a block of ice. Each day a new block was removed from the icehouse, carefully washed, and placed in the kitchen’s metal-lined icebox. Cold air from the ice swept down over perishables in the compartment below, while a drain and catching pan collected water as the block melted. Iceboxes were often located on the porch so that a hole could be drilled for a hose, allowing the water to flow away from the house—out of sight, out of mind. Sawdust scraped and washed away from a block of ice was left to dry through the summer and stored for reuse the following year.
With the advent of electricity, iceboxes gradually disappeared as new ways to store and preserve food for extended periods of time became available. Icehouses, however, continued to be part of rural 1940s life throughout this period of change as power was often unreliable and many rural families simply could not afford electricity.
The task of cutting and hauling ice in the 1940s was hard, exhausting work performed on frozen lakes using large handsaws. These saws measured between six to seven feet long so that the user didn’t have to bend over to complete the cut. Ice was cut into blocks measuring one cubic foot that weighed roughly 60 pounds each, but the thickness could vary depending on how deep the lake’s waters froze each year. Holes roughly 20 square feet were cut to yield up to 400 blocks of ice—enough to fill most reasonably sized icehouses of the day.
Cut ice was fished from the water, sized, and loaded into a wagon drawn by horse and sleigh. Families cut only what their wagon could carry, as excess blocks not immediately removed from the lake stuck to other pieces and had to be re-cut into a smaller, more manageable size. Cut areas posed a dangerous risk to travelers, so it was important to mark the area of the lake where ice was cut and removed. Felled trees were often used to mark the cut. This ensured that individuals on foot, skaters, and other parties traversing the lake did not unknowingly walk into a large pool of exposed water.
Today, Memory Lane Heritage Village volunteers cut blocks of ice annually each winter for use in the village. A mechanized, purpose-built saw now joins traditional hand tools to cut ice, while a John Deere tractor replaces the traditional horse and sleigh to move ice to the village’s icehouse in a matter of hours.