Remembering the ice man
By J. Chambless
An early ice wagon, most likely pulled by a pony.
By Lisa Fieldman
Tucked away off Sconnelltown Road in
West Chester sits The Antique Ice Tool Museum, a unique archive
dedicated to the history of ice.
The small cube of frozen water we take for granted has a complex and interesting history. The ice we use today is manufactured, but more than two centuries ago, all ice was harvested from lakes, rivers and ponds.
Pete Stack, the former owner of Brandywine Ice Company, has spent more than 30 years collecting artifacts of the natural ice industry. His museum resides in a meticulously restored barn that has its own history. The barn was built by stone mason William Ingram in 1843, and later sold to his friend, Smedley Darlington, as a new home for his school, Darlington Seminary for Young Ladies. The school closed in 1933 and the building was used for different business ventures. Some time in the mid-1940s, fortunes changed, and the barn sat empty and neglected until Stack and his wife bought it in 2009. He began a three-year restoration project that resulted in a magnificent space for his museum.
“I had eight stone masons working for a year,” Stack said as he showed off the walls of locally quarried stone. New window frames were crafted out of old barn wood, and wherever modern products were used, they were fashioned to reflect the age of the barn.
Entering the museum, a visitor steps back in time. You can choose to wander through the museum or elect to take the audio tour, which will provide a more in-depth experience.
Ice plows are displayed in the foyer. Mounted on the opposite wall are ice saws, with blades measuring between 36 inches and six feet. A monitor in the back of the room loops a video of men harvesting ice, and it shows the back-breaking labor it required.
The Hudson River in New York and the Kennebec River in Maine were the major sources for most of the commercial ice harvested. In the 1800s, men and horses provided the labor for this dangerous work. Out on the frozen river, augers were driven in to test the depth of the ice. Next, horses were hitched to scrapers to clear the snow. Ice plows with sharp blades were run over the ice to make the initial cut, creating a grid of ice blocks. Finally, men using long handsaws would finish cutting out the ice blocks, which often weighed 300 pounds.
It was a cold, brutal job. Besides the toll the labor took on their bodies, horses and men ran the risk of falling into the frigid water. Once the ice blocks were cut, they were floated down a canal toward the ice station, which was a warehouse for storing the ice. The open channel of water would be manned night and day.
“The canals had to be kept open, so men using long poles would work all night long to break up any ice that formed. That was a cold job,” Stack said.
The ice blocks would later be loaded on barges and taken down river to the big cities.
A picture of Frederick Tudor is displayed in the museum’s foyer. He is credited with the creation of the ice industry. Born into a wealthy and respected Boston family, Tudor chose to bypass a Harvard education in favor of life as an entrepreneur. One day, as he was picnicking with his family, his brother made an off-the-cuff comment that intrigued him. His brother joked how the colonists in the sweltering West Indies would envy the brothers’ enjoyment of a chilled drink. At that time, ice was a luxury item only available to the wealthy, or those who had the ability to harvest it from their ponds.
According to Stack, “Tudor thought, 'Why can’t I take some of this frozen water and ship it to the warmer climates?'”
He started working on a plan to ship ice from New England to the Caribbean. When he couldn’t find a ship owner to transport his ice on what many considered a foolish venture, he purchased his own ship. In 1806, his first cargo of ice sailed to Martinique. The ice arrived safely, but he was unable to persuade the islanders to use it.
“The people didn’t know what to do with it. They picked it up and it burned their hands. It took Tudor 20 years to convince them to use the product,” Stack said. Eventually, he began shipping ice all over the world and earned the nickname “The Ice King.”
You could say that Stack's fascination with the ice industry is genetic. Prominently displayed in the museum is a large picture of Pete Stack’s father, at 27, posing with his ice wagon and team of horses in Middletown, N.Y.
“My dad came from a big Irish family of nine, and as the family grew, he had to sleep in the attic,” Stack said. “He told me that, many mornings, he would wake up and have to shake snow off his blanket.” The elder Stack was removed from school in the third grade because he had to help support the family.
“He was always thinking ahead,” Stack said. “At age 16, he started his own ice business. He saved money and bought a team of horses and a wagon. Then, as he got bigger, his brothers joined him.” Stark Brothers Ice became the largest ice business in the area.
“He did all right,” Stack deadpanned with a small smile.
Pete Stack grew up working in the family business. He rode on the back of his father’s truck when he was young, delivering ice. Stack started out carrying a 25-pound block of ice, and as he grew stronger, he was given a 50-pound block. By the time he was 17, he was hauling blocks weighing 100 pounds.
“You would put 100 pounds of ice on your shoulder and go up two or three flights of stairs. Then you get up to the top and found the door locked, or the customer didn’t want any ice,” he recalled, shaking his head.
As an adult, he worked as an engineer for DupPont in the construction division. After many years and multiple transfers that uprooted his growing family, he decided to start his own business. Following in his father’s footsteps, he started Brandywine Ice Company.
“It was tough -- very tough,” he said. “I didn’t know the streets, I didn’t know anything, and I didn’t have any money.” But he persevered and built a successful company with a customer base that reached from the Poconos to the Delaware beaches. His company was employing 120 people by the time he retired and sold the business.
Stack's collection is vast, and although varied, it all is directly related to the ice industry. The first floor houses tools and early horse-drawn ice wagons. Stack has lovingly restored all of the wagons with original materials, and two of his wagons have won prizes at the Devon Horse Show. One 19th-century wagon has a unique adjustable wheelbase.
“You could lift the wagon off and change the length of the base to suit whatever size wagon you needed,” Stack explained.
Another gem is a 1927 pony-pulled ice wagon in immaculate condition. One wall offers a display of multiple ice shavers of different lengths and designs, and they date from the 1800s to the mid-1900s. This hand-held tool was used to cut ice into the size needed by the customer. The ice shavers in the collection are in impeccable shape for their age. Antique toy ice wagons are also displayed on the first floor.
On the second floor, the gallery hugs the perimeter of the barn, creating an open central space with a view down to the main floor. Above, an extensive collection of ice tongs hangs from the beams. The tongs vary widely in shape and size, proportioned to the amount of ice you need to move. Their shape is also an indicator of their origin.
“Notice how the New York tongs are more rounded than Philadelphia ice tongs,” Stack pointed out. The highlight on this floor is the collection of iceboxes, ranging from utilitarian for the home kitchen to decorative parlor boxes. The household iceboxes were top- or front-loading and, depending on the use and the budget, were plain or very ornate. Many offered a water spigot on the front. On early models, melting ice provided drinking water.
“As more lakes and rivers became polluted, they were designed with a spot where you could pour in potable water and it would be chilled for drinking,” Stack explained. Iceboxes manufactured by several different companies, such as Opal, Baldwin, Gibson and McCray, are on display. Documentation for an Alaska brand box shows a price, in 1886, of $48. “That was a lot of money back then,” Stack said.
Another piece of literature from McCray states that the company finished 500 ice boxes a day. “That’s over 100,000 boxes produced each year, and that’s just one company,” Stack said.
Also in the collection are very large commercial iceboxes that were used in grocery stores, butcher shops and restaurants. These held 500-pound blocks of ice.
The most unusual artifact on display is an ice casket from the 1840s. Embalming was not in practice at the time, and this casket allowed families to delay the burial so loved ones could view the deceased. The body was placed inside the coffin, and the iceman would come and put ice in a container that was suspended over the body. Once the casket was closed, a viewing window above the head could be opened for the mourners to pay their last respects.
“It’s my most unique piece,” said Stack, “and it took me 10 years to find it.”
The third floor houses Stack’s collection of 20th-century delivery trucks. The horsepower for these vehicles is provided by gas and diesel engines. Featured are a 1919 crank start Mack truck, and a 1932 5.5-ton Bulldog Mack dump truck, which is named Miss Joanne to honor Stack’s wife.
“It’s named after the boss!” he said with a laugh.
Stack’s father’s truck is also on display. “My father was 88 years old and loading 300 pounds of ice into the truck on Labor Day weekend. He had a heart attack and died in this truck bed,” Stack said as he placed his hand on the bed. “He worked up until the very end of his life.”
It's easy to see that Stack is proud of his museum, and he should be. His understated manner belies a dry humor, and he is not shy in voicing his opinion about the state of the world today. “Back then, it was a hard life, but a good life. A lot has been lost along the way,” he said.
His family shares his enthusiasm for the museum, and on a recent weekend, his three daughters and five grandchildren were all there to greet visitors during the Chester County House Tour.
“This was a big industry that went by the wayside,” Stack said. “All the ice stations are gone. All this stuff is gone.”
While there are other smaller museums that showcase the ice industry, the Antique Ice Tool Museum is the largest museum dedicated to the history of natural ice production. Acquiring and curating his collection has truly been a labor of love.
The Antique Ice Museum is at 825 Sconnelltown Rd. in West Chester. Operating hours vary by season, so check their website www.antiqueicetoolmuseum.org for details. The museum also has a Facebook page.