Milford Ice and Coal: A History


by Terry Rogers



Horse-drawn ice delivery wagon (Photo courtesy of Milford Museum)

Household refrigerators and freezers are a relatively new appliance, but ones we now take for granted. Prior to the invention of the ice box, many people would store perishables like milk and cheese in buckets, lowering them into their well to keep them cool. Those who lived near rivers and streams may place food items they wanted to keep cool in shallow areas of running water.

In the late 1800s, pits were dug into the ground where ice cut from local rivers would be stored for use during the warmer months. In Milford, ice was harvested from several lakes in the area using a special ice saw. Very wealthy individuals in town and some farmers built ice houses, which were actually small buildings over the deep ice pits with ice covered in straw or sawdust. Often, ice houses looked like a building that had settled into the ground as they had roofs with more pitch than other outbuildings.

Ice Harvesting on Milford lake (Photo courtesy of Milford Museum)

A very cold winter created a bountiful ice business the following summer, according to articles published in the local papers. In 1878, an advertisement read “Milford will have next season a bountiful supply of ice, if preparations for the storing of that article is any criterion. Mr. Lowery has enlarged one of his Rockland Lake ice houses so that its capacity is now 65,000 bushels. This, with his other house on the opposite shore, should keep Milford’s palates wet with ice-cold mint juleps during the dog days.” A notice in the Milford Chronicle on October 30, 1885, announced “E. Geilinger has completed an ice house on Haven Pond that will hold one thousand tons of ice. This will enable him to run his ice cream factory without depending on Yankee ice.”

The average person only purchased ice when an illness required it as it was fairly expensive. Around the turn of the century, George Henry Draper built an ice plant on Maple Avenue. Harry McCullough, a local contractor, installed the machinery and horse-drawn carriages began delivering ice during the summer door-to-door. On the day ice was needed, customers initially placed crude cardboard signs in their window so the driver knew how much to deliver. In later years, the ice company provided customers with a window sign arranged like a clock dial and a revolving cardboard hand to be placed in the window. The numbers indicated pounds needed and the small cardboard hand could be turned to the number of pounds each customer needed.

Children would follow the ice wagon to collect handfuls of shattered ice when the iceman sawed off the amount of ice that was needed.

“We were told to stay off the wagon, but when the iceman picked up the ice with his tongs and went into he house to make the delivery, the temptation was too great,” E. Millis Hurley wrote in an April 1980 edition of the Milford Historical Society Newsletter. “We ran down the street with out mouths crammed with that delectable coolness. Sometimes the iceman gave each child of his following a little chunk of ice to be licked and bitten off in pieces. This delicacy was wrapped in newspaper to protect the hands from the cold. What a treat that was on a hot day!”

Left to Right: Chester “Chet” Dickerson; Mansen “Junior” Marvel; Harry Harrington; Unknown; Jim Abbott; Russel Coverdale; Elmer Coverdale (Photo courtesy of Milford Museum)

Rural homes built ice boxes that kept the delivered ice stored in sawdust. Some of these had sliding grates that had to be moved in order to get access to the food, making them inconvenient. Eventually, people were able to purchase iceboxes that were more convenient, with doors that had latches so they could close securely. They often had two compartments with one an insulated, lined area designed to hold large chunks of ice. The bottom section was to store perishables. An interior pipe drained water from the melting ice into a collection pan on the floor. One family member was assigned the chore of checking the drain pan and emptying it when necessary to avoid it overflowing. In the early 1900s, the average family purchased hundreds of pounds of ice at the average cost of 30 cents per pound.

Milford Ice House was purchased by Charles Varney in the early 1900s and he sold it in 1946 to Harry Mayhew. During Varney’s ownership, a retail oil line was added, creating Milford Ice and Coal.

Left to right: Charles Varney; Alex Richards; Harvey Warner; Nathaniel “Nat” Rogers; Frank Nelton; Unknown; Harry Harrington; Chester “Chet” Dickerson; Jim Abbott; Mansen “Junior” Marvel; Elmer Coverdale; Russell Coverdale (Photo courtesy of Milford Museum)

“It was during World War II when people could not buy electric refrigerators,” Mayhew said in an interview in 1980. “Everything was cooled by ice, even the milk boxes. At the time, we had five trucks delivering ice in town and in the country. It was all domestic. Eventually, domestic delivery ended and it was mostly commercial. After the chicken plants came into being, they discovered that ice was the only thing that would take the heat out of the chickens, so they would come with large trucks and have fine ice blown into the trucks.”

As time went on, people would visit the ice house on Maple Avenue for many reasons. On weekends, people traveling to the beach to fish or swim would purchase larger quantities and blocks of ice for coolers. Eventually, as retail stores began carrying bags of ice, the ice business dwindled leaving only the oil business for a time. The business was taken over by Mayhew’s wife, Frances, after his death. She sold it in 1973 to a nephew and it closed in the early 1980s. The building still stands and was the former location of Charles Murphy Surveying. A doctor’s office uses the other side of the building currently.


Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 7.24.15 AM

Sign up for you free digital subscription of The Weekly Review, delivered directly to your email every Tuesday morning. A quick cover-to-cover read to catch up on the news of the week and experience great stories about our local communities. Sign up for your free email subscription below.